What the Heck are Advanced Glycosylated (Glycation) End Products & Why Should You Care?

Have you ever wondered what makes something taste really good? It’s an interesting question, and the food industry has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to figure it out. A handful of sugar, combined with a dash of salt, and just the right amount of fat or protein, can take our taste buds to a place that the food industry calls “the bliss point.” And it’s not just yummy; it’s also profitable because it makes you say, “Mmmm...I’d like more of that!”

In order to take you to delicious-delight-land, your food item needs to be cooked just right. A crispy golden brown is best. Think of the difference between raw and fresh baked cookies, pastries, or squares. The aromas and flavours change for the better when we bake, broil, fry, or barbeque our foods. Their colour and texture change too.

These changes that occur when we cook our food is the result of a process called glycation, (or sometimes non-enzymatic glycosylation). Glycation is the bonding of a sugar molecule, like glucose or fructose, to a protein or fat molecule. Eventually, after lots and lots of glycation, you end up with advanced glycosylated end (AGE) products.

Glycation happens slowly over time at low temperatures and quickly at high temperatures. At baking temperature in the oven, it takes a matter of minutes. That’s why cookies go from not-done, to perfect, to burnt in what feels like seconds. But glycation doesn’t just happen to food. It actually happens in our bodies too, but over a span of decades. So it’s a little ironic that advanced glycosylation end products are also known by the acronym AGEs, and they are literally involved in the aging process. In our foods, rigid, inflexible AGEs make our meals scrumptiously crispy. In our bodies, they make tissues stiff, and that’s not a good thing.

One example of how AGEs induced aging affects our bodies is the formation of cataracts. Just like a baked treat crisps and browns in the oven, the natural crystalline lens of the human eye becomes rigid and inflexible over the first 40 to 50 years of our lives, leading us to need progressive bifocal lenses to help us see near. With more time, the lens inside the eye changes colour becoming yellow or eventually brown. At that point, it won’t allow light to pass through. In Canada, and other developed nations, seniors with cataracts are able to ask a surgeon to simply remove the natural lens and replace it with an artificial intraocular lens implant. Globally, however, cataracts are sadly responsible for 51% of blindness worldwide.

Another example of the effects AGEs have on the aging process is glaucoma, a group of diseases that damage the optic nerve and cause vision loss. As we’ve already mentioned, AGEs make tissues stiffer and more rigid, reducing flexibility and elasticity over time. Younger eyes, with more elastic corneas and optic nerves, are better able to absorb changes in pressure inside the eye, but older eyes become damaged rather than adapting to the change. Today’s theory is that the build up of AGEs in the tissues of the eye makes it less elastic and thus unable to absorb the increases in pressure that then damage the optic nerve and cause glaucoma.

Diabetic patients suffer ill effects of AGEs as well. Since diabetics often have a higher amount of sugar in their bloodstream, they end up with more sugars binding to proteins and lipids in their blood vessels. Researchers have recently discovered a receptor for AGEs on the cells lining our blood vessels. They call this receptor RAGE. Today’s theory is that AGEs bind to RAGE and start the process of plaque formation which you may know as the hardening of the arteries.

This current theory may explain why diabetics are more prone to hypertension, stroke, and other complications of cardiovascular disease. In fact, researchers now consider a high concentration of AGEs in the skin to be an important predictor of the future development of complications in diabetes.

So what can you do? How do you know whether AGEs are affecting you? The doctors at Calgary’s Doig Optometry recommend high resolution, digital photographs of the retina at every comprehensive eye exam. The retina is the easiest place to assess and inspect blood vessels in the entire body. When we look at them in high resolution, we can detect fluid leaking out of the blood vessels, hemorrhage, aneurysm, abnormal blood vessel growth, or any other complication AGEs might cause to the blood vessels of the eyes.

This is important because if AGEs are causing adverse outcomes to the blood vessels in your eyes, they’re likely negatively affecting the blood vessels in the rest of your body too. If the blood vessels in your eyes are unhealthy, you need to know, so you can speak with your general practitioner sooner about the potential challenges AGEs may bring as you get older.

Golden brown cookies may be delicious, but nobody wants their eyes —or any other body part—  to become rigid or inflexible. Call Doig Optometry today to book your eye health examination, and let us tell you about the health of your eyes and your blood vessels.

© 2024 Doig Optometry All Rights Reserved.