What Your Eyes Reveal About Your Heart Health
Shortness of breath and chest pain aren't the only signs of heart disease. Your ophthalmologist may notice subtle changes in your eyes during the earliest phases of the disease. When you schedule annual eye exams, you'll protect your eyes and your heart.
Signs of Heart Disease in the Eyes
During your exam, your eye doctor will look for these signs of heart trouble:
- Yellow Deposits (Drusen). Drusen are fatty, yellow deposits that form under the macula, the central portion of your retina. The retina is the layer of cells at the back of the eye that turns light rays into electrical impulses. Drusen are often seen in people who have age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a condition that causes central vision loss. Researchers at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary recently discovered that patients with subretinal drusenoid deposits may be more likely to have heart disease or narrowing of the arteries in the sides of the neck. This type of drusen, which can only be detected with high-tech retinal imaging, could increase your risk of both heart disease and stroke. Researchers believe that the drusen could form due to poor blood circulation in the eyes caused by heart or blood vessel disease.
- Ring Around the Cornea. Called arcus senilis, rings around the cornea are most often seen in older people, although they can appear at any age. These rings form around the edges of the clear cornea, the rounded tissue over the pupil and iris. Arcus senilis may be white, blue, or gray. The rings aren't usually a cause for concern if you're middle age or older, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. However, you may have high cholesterol if you develop arcus senilis at an earlier age. High cholesterol triggers the formation of plaque, a waxy, fatty substance that clogs blood vessels and increases your risk of stroke, heart disease, and reduced blood flow to the arms and legs.
- Marks on the Retina. Tiny marks on your retina could be a sign that you've suffered an eye stroke, a condition that occurs when cells in the eye die due to a lack of oxygen and blood. The condition can happen if a blood vessel that serves the eye becomes blocked. People who have heart disease usually have many more of these marks, known as retinal ischemic perivascular lesions, than healthy people. Your ophthalmologist can see the marks while performing a test called optical coherence tomography (OCT) during a comprehensive eye exam. OCT makes it possible to every layer of the retina and spot abnormalities.
- Cholesterol Deposits. High cholesterol can also affect your eyelids. Yellow bumps called xanthelasma may appear on your eyelids if your "bad" cholesterol level is too high. Although xanthelasma don't interfere with your vision, some people find them unsightly. Lowering your cholesterol level will stop new bumps from appearing, but won't change the way existing bumps look. Your ophthalmologist can remove xanthelasma if you're unhappy with your appearance.
- Changing Colors in the Retina. Red or white spots in the retina could mean that you have a blocked retinal artery. Blockages prevent oxygen carried by your blood from reaching the cells in the retina. If the blockage affects the main artery, you might experience a sudden loss of vision. Blockages in the branch arteries may not cause any changes in your vision or might only cause slight blurriness. If the blockage clears and the blood flows normally again, the vision change may only be temporary. Hardening of the arteries, carotid artery disease, heart tumors, heart valve problems, and heart rhythm issues are among the causes of blocked arteries, according to the American Society of Retina Specialists.
If your ophthalmologist notices any of these signs, you will be referred to your doctor or a cardiologist. Treating your heart issues, even if you don't have any symptoms, will help you lower your risk of heart attack, stroke, and vision loss.
Has it been a while since you've had a comprehensive eye exam? Call our office to schedule your appointment.
American Society of Retina Specialists: Retinal Artery Occlusion
American Academy of Ophthalmology: Early Signs of Heart Disease Appear in the Eyes, 4/27/2022
Mt. Sinai Health System: Blinding Eye Disease Is Strongly Associated With Heart Disease and Stroke, 7/12/2022
National Institutes of Health: Targeting Cholesterol Buildup in Eye May Slow Age-Related Vision Loss, 4/3/13
American Academy of Ophthalmology:What Is Arcus Senilis?, 4/26/2019