How an Eye Exam Can Help Your Heart

Now is a great time to learn more about how a comprehensive eye exam can help your heart health. You probably hear a lot about protecting your heart and looking for signs of cardiovascular diseases like high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. A trip to the eye doctor can also play an important role in identifying these diseases before symptoms show up elsewhere in the body, allowing for earlier, possibly more effective treatment. Many of these conditions can also cause vision loss when not managed effectively.

The Role of Eye Examinations in Detecting Cardiovascular Disease

Optometrists or ophthalmologists can detect early signs of heart disease during preventive eye exams. Through careful examination of the retina, your eye doctor can view small changes in the blood vessels in the back of the eye, which can indicate more serious systemic disease. Due to their enormous demand for oxygen, tiny retinal blood vessels can be easily damaged by high blood pressure.

In fact, the eye is the only area on the body where doctors can get an unobstructed view of blood vessels in the human body. More and more research is showing that the type and severity of changes in the retina can be predictors for intensity of cardiovascular disease including stroke, high blood pressure and even heart failure. Recent advancements such as digital retinal imaging allow your eye doctor to quickly and painlessly detect and monitor blood flow in your retina.

Diagnosing High Blood Pressure Through the Eyes

Hypertension (high blood pressure) is known as a "silent" disease because its victims often lack symptoms. It affects approximately 65 million Americans, and only 34% of them have it under good control. During a comprehensive eye examination, your eye doctor checks for many subtle changes in the retina resulting from high blood pressure, a condition also known as hypertensive retinopathy. These changes to the retina may include narrowing of the small blood vessels in the retina, arteries pressing down on veins and flame-shaped hemorrhages, among other complications. If these changes are seen, your eye doctor will work with your primary care doctor to ensure you receive appropriate and timely treatment.

Vision Loss Due to Cardiovascular Diseases

Some cases of hypertensive retinopathy can be sight threatening, as with blockage of the retinal veins, referred to as retinal vein occlusions. Due to thickening of the walls of smaller arteries, hardened arteries "pinch" the veins, forming what is called a branch retinal vein occlusion. Vision loss can occur when blood obstructs the retina, the eye is deprived of oxygen or the macula swells. When the central retinal vein becomes blocked, vision loss can become more pronounced. Obstruction of the arteries and blood vessels in the retina can be temporary or permanent and can cause vision loss when a blockage disrupts blood flow in the eye.

A Healthy Cardiovascular System Means Healthier Eyes

More and more research shows that risk factors that can indicate or lead to heart damage are also harmful to the eyes. Smoking, obesity and high cholesterol levels put both your heart health and your sight at risk. Exercising, maintaining a proper weight and eating a heart healthy diet rich in omega-3s, antioxidants and soluble fiber will help improve both heart and eye health. (Consult with your doctor before engaging in any exercise or diet program.)

And don't forget to visit your eye doctor annually or as recommended by your eye care professional. He might just tell you something you didn't know about your heart.