What your eye doctor can tell about your heart health
How eyes can reveal potentially serious heart problems
Your eye doctor can help keep an eye on your heart. Risk factors for heart disease like high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol can be detected early during a comprehensive eye exam. In fact, your eye doctor may be the first to detect if you’re at risk for a heart attack or stroke.
Certain markers in the arteries and veins of the retina can provide eye doctors with important clues about what is happening in the small blood vessels of the brain and heart.
Eye conditions that reveal artery blockage, narrowing and hardening
Due to age and other risk factors such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, arteries may narrow, harden and become clogged with deposits called “plaque.” This is known as atherosclerosis. It can affect blood vessels in the heart, brain and entire body, including small arteries supplying blood to the retina and optic nerve.
Small pieces of cholesterol plaque can sometimes break away from the carotid artery, a major blood vessel that branches off the aorta (from the heart) and supplies blood to the brain and eyes. These plaque deposits can travel to the arteries of the eye, making them visible during a dilated eye exam.
If these pieces of plaque reach the brain, they can cause a stroke. If your eye doctor spots plaque deposits, you will be sent to your primary care doctor, or to get an imaging study done.
Eye conditions that reveal artery blockage, narrowing and hardening include:
Amaurosis fugax can result from blockage of the internal carotid artery. It is a temporary loss of vision in one eye that can last up to 30 minutes. This is a warning sign that a stroke may happen.
Retinal artery occlusions
The most common cause of a retinal artery occlusion is an embolism, which is a blockage of an artery by a circulating blood clot. An embolism can travel from the heart or blood vessel and lodge in the eye. This can be visible during an eye exam.