skip navigation

S M L Text size
Home » Resources » Clinical Studies » Randomized Trial of Beta-Carotene and Macular Degeneration

NEI Clinical Studies

Archived Page

The information on this page is archived and provided for reference purposes only. It was current when it was produced, but may now be out-of-date. Persons having difficulty accessing this information may contact for assistance. For reliable, current information on this and other topics, we recommend that you visit the National Eye Institute website index.

Randomized Trial of Beta-Carotene and Macular Degeneration

Purpose | Background | Description | Patient Eligibility | Recruitment Status | Current Status | Results | Publications | Resource Centers | NEI Representative



Macular degeneration, a major cause of blindness in the United States, is the leading cause of new cases of blindness in people aged 65 and older. The National Eye Institute estimates that each year an additional 165,000 people, mainly in the older age groups, develop macular disease. Among all people with macular degeneration, approximately 116,000 are affected by the neovascular form of the disease. Although laser treatment is an effective treatment for patients with certain forms of neovascular membranes (exudative AMD), for most patients there is no available treatment.

The pathogenesis of AMD is only partly understood, and its etiology remains obscure. The Retinal and Choroidal Diseases Panel of the National Advisory Eye Council has stated that "none of the fundamental causes of any type of macular disease is known, and none can be prevented." Thus, this panel recommended that one of the NEI's program development priorities should be to "initiate epidemiologic studies of macular diseases to identify possible causative, protective, or aggravating factors."


This trial is part of the Physicians Health Study, sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) of the National Institutes of Health, with funding for eye epidemiologic data evaluations provided by the NEI. It is an ongoing, randomized, placebo-controlled trial of aspirin in the prevention of cardiovascular mortality and of beta-carotene in the prevention of cancer. Following randomization, each of the 22,071 physicians enrolled was assigned to one of four groups to take either aspirin or its placebo and beta-carotene or its placebo. Followup questionnaires are sent 6 and 12 months after randomization and every 12 months thereafter. The average length of followup is now greater than 12 years.

The hypothesis that beta-carotene levels are inversely related to AMD is supported by experimental studies on the relationship between antioxidants and retinal morphology and function. There is increasing evidence that visible and ultraviolet light can damage the retina through production of superoxide radicals. Antioxidants (including beta-carotene, vitamins A, E, and C, and selenium) protect against oxidative damage by acting as scavengers for the superoxide radicals.

Epidemiologic data from the first National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES-1) are also consistent with a link between antioxidants and AMD; the frequency of consumption of fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin A (beta-carotene) was negatively correlated with AMD after adjustment for demographic and medical factors.

Data from this study will determine whether one 50-mg beta-carotene capsule taken on alternate days protects against the development of AMD and whether additional risk factors emerge after simultaneous controlling for other potential confounding factors.

Reported diagnoses of AMD are confirmed by medical record review. The primary analysis will be a comparison of incidence of reported AMD in the beta-carotene and placebo groups. The Cox proportional hazards model will also be used to determine whether there is a difference in time to diagnosis of AMD between the two groups.

Patient Eligibility

When the Physicians Health Study was established in the early 1980s by the NHLBI to collect data on a stable population at risk for heart attack, only male physicians were studied because males were thought to be at higher risk than females for ischemic heart problems. The study population consists of 22,071 male U.S. physicians who were aged 40 to 84 years in 1982. The subjects have no history of myocardial infarction, cancer, kidney disease, renal disease, or any other contraindication to the use of aspirin or beta-carotene, including regular use of corticosteroids.

Patient Recruitment Status

Recruitment for the Physicians Health Study began in April 1982 and was completed in December 1984. The Randomized Trial of Beta-Carotene and Macular Degeneration began evaluating data from that study in 1990.

Current Status of Study

Ongoing. Randomized treatment complete. Collection of medical records for reported cases of AMD is continuing.




Fong DS, Fong DS, Fong DS, Fong DS, Ferris FL, Christen WG, Glynn RJ, Manson JE, Ajani UA, Buring JE, Ferris FL: A prospective study of cigarette smoking and risk of age-related macular degeneration in men. JAMA 276: 1147-1151, 1996.

Resource Centers

Chairman's Office and Data Analysis Center
William Christen, Ph.D.
Brigham and Women's Hospital
900 Commonwealth Avenue East
Boston, MA 02215
Telephone: (617) 278-0795
Fax: (617) 734-1437

Charles H. Hennekens, M.D.
Brigham and Women's Hospital
900 Commonwealth Avenue East
Brookline, MA 02215-1204
Telephone: (617) 732-4965
Fax: (617) 731-3843

NEI Representative

Maryann Redford, D.D.S., M.P.H.
National Eye Institute
National Institutes of Health
6120 Executive Boulevard, MSC 7164
Bethesda, MD 20892
Telephone: (301) 496-5983
Fax: (301) 402-0528

Last Updated: 9/21/01

Department of Health and Human Services NIH, the National Institutes of Health