What Your Eyes Reveal About Your Health

Eyes are said to be the gateway to the soul—and can also reveal surprising early clues to cardiovascular disease risk. Three new studies report that noninvasive exams of blood vessels in the eyes can potentially identify patients with a high lifetime risk for cardiovascular disease, the leading killer of Americans.

The researchers linked subtle changes in the eye’s blood circulation to blood vessel problems elsewhere in the body, as well as increased risk for metabolic syndrome, a cluster of heart attack risk factors that affects about 50 million Americans, many of who are unaware of their danger.

The studies suggest that eye exams could be a painless, noninvasive way to tell which patients have short-term or long-term cardiovascular risk, so those people could get preventative care to ward off threats to their blood vessel health.

Warning Signs of Heart Attack and Stroke Risk

There’s a link between the health of blood vessels in the retina and ejection function, a test that measures how well the heart pumps in each beat, according to a new study that looked at 229 patients with high blood pressure.

A second study observed 268 patients with high blood pressure, but no history of heart disease. A significant link was found between retinal vascular alterations, or changes in the retina’s eye vessels, and arterial stiffness, which is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

The third study showed that there was a link between damage to the retina’s blood vessels and metabolic syndrome, a cluster of cardiometabolic abnormalities that that triple risk for heart attack and quintuple it for type 2 diabetes.

To be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, which also boosts risk for stroke and kidney disease, you must have at least three of the following 5 conditions:

  • A large waistline (above 40 inches for a man, above 35 inches for a women)
  • High triglycerides
  • Low HDL (good) cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood sugar

An Eye Disorder that Boosts the Threat of Fatal Heart Problems

An earlier study from the University of Sidney showed that 28.6 percent of people with diabetes had retinopathy, and the eye disorder was shown to increase the risk of death due to heart problems by 121 percent for those with diabetes, and by 33 percent for those without it. Study authors pointed out that the increased risk of death due to heart disease for people who suffered from retinopathy but did not have diabetes was equal to the increased risk due to diabetes.

Furthermore, a study observing close to 13,000 people showed that the condition xanthelasmata (or patches of yellow skin around the eyelids) predicted the risk of heart disease, atherosclerosis (the hardening of the arteries) and death.

Which Diseases Can Lead to Eye or Vision Problems

In addition to eye health predicting the risk of disease, specific health problems can lead to vision problems.

Untreated high blood pressure can create eye problems by straining blood vessels in the eye, which can cause blurred vision, bleeding in the eyes and even vision loss. “If you also have both diabetes and high blood pressure, you’re at even greater risk,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

High blood pressure can also cause choroidopathy, a condition where blood vessels leak and fluid to accumulate underneath the retina, which can create vision problems.

Furthermore, high blood pressure can damage the eye’s optic nerve, which can lead to bleeding in the eye or vision loss.

“High blood pressure damage is cumulative, so the longer it goes untreated, the higher the likelihood of permanent damage,” according to the American Heart Association. High blood pressure can also dead to strokes, which can lead to vision loss.

How to Protect Eye and Heart Health

  • In addition to regular check-ups at your doctor’s office, make sure to have your eyes screened regularly. This can detect early signs of high blood pressure and diabetes.
  • The American Optometric Association recommends screenings every two years for adults under 60 who have no symptoms, and annual screenings for adults over the age of 61. Patients who have had eye surgery, wear contact lessons, are on medication which effects eye health, suffer from diabetes or hypertension, or have a family history of glaucoma, macular degeneration or other eye diseases may need more frequent examinations, as recommended by an optometrist.
  • In addition to regularly scheduled vision screenings, following common sense guidelines can help lower your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, metabolic syndrome and diabetes. Consuming a diet high in fruits and vegetables, eating fish, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, avoiding tobacco and limiting alcohol to two drinks a day for men or one drink a day for women can go a long way.
  • Controlling high blood pressure is also crucial. As I reported recently, many doctors fail to make medication adjustments in patients with uncontrolled blood pressure. If you suffer from hypertension, it’s important to make sure that it is under control.
  • If you are on medication for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or any other medical problems, make sure to take it as prescribed to prevent unnecessary complications.

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