During American Heart Month, you'll 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, more effective treatment. Many of these conditions can also cause vision loss when not managed effectively.
Optometrists and 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 diseases.
In fact, the eye is the only area on the body where doctors have an unobstructed view of blood vessels in the human body. Recent advancements such as digital retinal imaging allow your eye doctor to quickly and painlessly detect and monitor blood flow in your retina.
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. If your eye doctor sees these changes, he or she will work with your primary care doctor to ensure you receive appropriate and timely treatment.
Some cases of hypertensive retinopathy can be sight threatening. Vision loss can occur when blood obstructs the retina, the eye is deprived of oxygen or the macula (central part of the eye) swells. 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.
The same 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.
Source: *National Institutes of Health.