Weight Loss Wonder Drugs Linked to Rare Blindness Risk: New Study Raises Concerns

A Mass Eye and Ear-led study reveals that patients prescribed semaglutide (Ozempic and Wegovy) for diabetes or weight loss have a significantly higher risk of developing NAION, a rare but potentially blinding eye condition.

Key points:

  • Diabetic patients prescribed semaglutide were more than four times more likely to be diagnosed with NAION, while overweight or obese patients were more than seven times more likely.
  • NAION is relatively rare, affecting up to 10 out of 100,000 people in the general population, and is the second-leading cause of optic nerve blindness.
  • The study analyzed records of over 17,000 patients treated at Mass Eye and Ear over six years, comparing those prescribed semaglutide to those taking other diabetes or weight loss drugs.

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A new study led by researchers at Mass Eye and Ear has uncovered a concerning link between popular prescription weight loss drugs and a rare but serious eye condition.

The research, published July 3rd in JAMA Ophthalmology, found that patients prescribed semaglutide (sold under the brand names Ozempic and Wegovy) for diabetes or weight loss had a significantly higher risk of developing non-arteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy (NAION), a potentially blinding eye condition.

Wooden blocks that spell obesity.

Details

The study analyzed records of over 17,000 patients treated at Mass Eye andEar over six years since Ozempic’s release in 2017.

Researchers compared patients who had received prescriptions for semaglutide to those taking other diabetes or weight loss drugs. The results were striking:

  • Patients with diabetes who were prescribed semaglutide were more than four times more likely to be diagnosed with NAION.
  • Overweight or obese patients prescribed the drug were more than seven times more likely to receive a NAION diagnosis.

NAION is a relatively rare condition, affecting up to 10 out of 100,000 people in the general population.

It is the second-leading cause of optic nerve blindness after glaucoma and the most common cause of sudden optic nerve blindness.

The condition is thought to be caused by reduced blood flow to the optic nerve head, resulting in permanent visual loss in one eye.

An expert weighs in

Dr. Joseph Rizzo, director of the Neuro-Ophthalmology Service at Mass Eye and Ear and the study’s corresponding author, emphasized the importance of these findings: “The use of these drugs has exploded throughout industrialized countries and they have provided very significant benefits in many ways, but future discussions between a patient and their physician should include NAION as a potential risk.”

However, Dr. Rizzo also cautioned that the study has limitations.

Mass Eye and Ear sees an unusually high number of people with rare eye diseases, the study population is majority white, and the number of NAION cases seen over the six-year study period is relatively small.

Additionally, the study does not prove causality, and researchers are uncertain about the mechanism behind this association.

High tide for semaglutide

The findings come at a time when semaglutide-based medications are seeing a surge in popularity for weight loss.

Semaglutide was initially developed to treat type 2 diabetes but has gained widespread use for weight management since its approval for this purpose in 2021.

While the study raises important concerns, experts stress that patients should not abruptly stop their medications without consulting their healthcare providers.

Instead, this new information should be part of informed discussions between patients and their doctors, especially for those with pre-existing optic nerve problems or significant visual loss from other causes.

An unchecked epidemic

As the global obesity treatment market continues to grow, with an estimated value of $2.4 billion in 2023, these findings underscore the need for ongoing research into the long-term effects of new weight loss medications.

The balance between the benefits of weight loss and potential risks will likely remain a topic of critical importance in healthcare discussions moving forward.

Source: https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/1050055

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