The eyes are “windows to the live action of blood vessels, nerves and connective tissues throughout the body,” states the American Academy of Ophthalmology. The academy recommends that all adults get a comprehensive exam by age 40. (High risk patients, such as those with a family history of eye disease or diabetes should have an exam at an earlier age.) In addition to issues involving vision, an exam can help spot a problem that may be lurking elsewhere in the body. If that’s the case, the patient is generally referred to a specialist or their primary care provider.(1)
The following are examples of conditions that may be detected during a comprehensive eye exam:
- Diabetes – Tiny blood vessels in the retina that leak yellow fluid or blood can be a sign of diabetic retinopathy. Sometimes this disease appears in the eye tissue even before a person has been diagnosed with diabetes.
- Lupus – This inflammatory disease can coincide with dry eyes. Lupus can also cause swelling in the white part of the eye, the middle layer of they eye, or the light-sensitive tissue in the back of the eye.
- Lyme Disease – Lyme disease is an infection spread by ticks, which leads to inflammation throughout the body. Many people with Lyme disease experience inflammation of the optic nerves as well as an increase in floaters at the onset of infection.
- Sarcoidosis – This inflammatory disease affects multiple organs in the body, including the eyes. The most common eye symptom of this disease is iritis, a recurring, painful inflammation of the iris. This condition also causes severe light sensitivity.
- High Cholesterol – A yellow or blue ring around the cornea may be a sign of high cholesterol, especially in a person younger than age 40. Deposits in the blood vessels of the retina can also indicate elevated cholesterol.(1)
A new study in ophthalmic epidemiology indicates that retinal images can provide information about a person’s overall cardiovascular health. The study was published in the January 2022 British Journal of Ophthalmology.(2)
The researchers used deep learning technology to determine the biological age of a subject’s retina, which in many cases was different than the subject’s chronological age. The study analyzed the retinal age gap of 35,913 subjects. The study examined the mortality data for the subjects for an average of 11 years.(3)
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of mortality globally, and prevention and early detection of CVD is considered critical in terms of reducing death. The study suggests that retinal images could be an important screening tool. “The retina is highly vascular and easily accessible to non-invasive images and assessments and can serve as a surrogate measure of the health of the systemic vasculature,” the study authors wrote.(2)
The researchers found that each year increase in the retinal age gap (between retinal and true chronological age) was associated with increased Arterial Stiffness. The Arterial Stiffness Index (ASI) is an accepted measure of cardiovascular health.(2)
“While the risks of illness and death increase with age, it’s clear that these risks vary considerably among people of the same age, implying that ‘biological aging’ is unique to the individual and may be a better indicator of current and future health,” the researchers reported.(4)
The findings, along with previous research, indicate that the retina “plays an important role in the aging process and is sensitive to the cumulative damages of aging,” the researchers wrote.
(1) Mukamal, R., Taylor, R. MD (reviewer), Ophthalmology Times, 20 Surprising Health Problems an Eye Exam Can Catch, https://www.aao.org/eye-health/
(2) Zhu, Z. MD, RD, Chen Y., Wang, W. MD, PhD, ResearchGate, Association of Retinal Age Gap with Arterial Stiffness and Incident Cardiovascular Disease, https://www.researchgate.net/
(3) Lang, K., Beake, J. PhD (reviewer) Medical News Today, Retinal Age Gap: A New Way of Assessing Death Risk, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/
(4) Hutton, D. Ophthalmology Times, Study: Eyes May Become Windows Into Aging Process, https://www.ophthalmologytimes.com/