If You Have This Issue With Your Eyes, Your Heart Disease Risk Is High

In a new report, researchers found that this could be an early indicator of heart trouble.

When you think about signs of heart trouble, you're probably imagining pain in your chest, difficulty breathing, and light-headedness. However, new research out of UC San Diego Health has revealed that an early marker of heart disease may in fact be found by studying your eyes. For the full story on what your eyes could reveal about your heart health, read on, and for another way to test your ticker, check out If You Can't Do This in 90 Seconds, Your Heart Is in Danger, Study Says.

The blood vessels in your eyes can say a lot about your health.

Ophthalmologist analyzing exam's results in a monitor

The eyes are particularly interesting to study because, as the UC San Diego researchers said in their findings—published on March 2 in the journal EClinical Medicine by The Lancet—they are the only place in the body where our smallest blood vessels can be easily observed. Decreased blood flow, or other heart disease-related issues like increased blood pressure will trigger visible damage in the eye and alert doctors to underlying or developing problems.

"The eyes are a window into our health, and many diseases can manifest in the eye; cardiovascular disease is no exception," the paper's lead author Mathieu Bakhoum, MD, PhD, a physician-scientist and retina surgeon at UC San Diego Health, said in a statement. And for more on what your eyes say about your well-being, check out 17 Warning Signs Your Eyes Are Trying to Tell You About Your Health.

It's your retinas in particular that can signal signs of heart disease.

Young men having an eye exam at ophthalmologist's office.

Considering heart disease kills more Americans than any other ailment every year, the researchers at the Shiley Eye Institute at UC San Diego Health set out to see if a noninvasive eye test could detect underlying heart issues, which would help with early detection.

They surmised that retinal ischemia could serve as an early indicator of heart disease. So, the team looked at how an optical coherence tomography (OCT) scan, which creates images of the retina, could be studied to see where lesions were occurring. The retina is the inner-most, light-sensitive layer of the eye and anything out of the ordinary there is a cause for concern.

"Ischemia, which is decreased blood flow caused by heart disease, can lead to inadequate blood flow to the eye and may cause cells in the retina to die, leaving behind a permanent mark," Bakhoum said. "We termed this mark 'retinal ischemic perivascular lesions,' or RIPLs, and sought to determine if this finding could serve as a biomarker for cardiovascular disease." And for more heart disease red flags, check out If You See This in Your Mouth, Your Heart Attack Risk Is High, Study Says.

The researchers found that patients with heart disease have more lesions on their retinas.

Optician examining woman's eyes
Jen Bernal / Shutterstock

The UC San Diego Health researchers reviewed the records of individuals who received a retinal OCT scan at the hospital from July 2014 to July 2019, and compared the scans of individuals with heart disease to those of healthy individuals. According to the researchers, an increased number of RIPLs was observed in the eyes of individuals with heart disease, leading them to conclude that, "The higher the number of RIPLs observed, the higher the risk of the patients suffering cardiovascular disease."

The American College of Cardiology developed the atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD) risk score calculator, which is the way doctors assess a patient's 10-year risk of experiencing a cardiovascular event, like a heart attack or stroke. In the report, researchers found a correlation between the number of RIPLs in a patient's eye and their ASCVD risk score. "Individuals with low and borderline ASCVD scores had a low number of RIPLs in their eyes, but as the ASCVD risk increased, so did the number of RIPLs," said Bakhoum. And for more health news delivered right to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

Your eyes can show signs of blood flow issues before other heart disease symptoms emerge.

MS symptoms

Ophthalmologists at UC San Diego Health suggest referring patients to a cardiologist if RIPLs are identified during an OCT scan, even if they haven't shown other symptoms of heart disease yet. "Globally, cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death and unfortunately many people are unaware they may have heart issues," said Bakhoum. "The key in preventing this is early detection and treatment. It's our hope that by identifying RIPLs as a marker for cardiovascular disease providers will be able to identify heart issues before a catastrophic event, such as a heart attack or a stroke, occurs." And for cardiovascular risk factors, check out If You Have This Blood Type, Your Heart Attack Risk Is Higher, Study Says.

John Quinn
John Quinn is a London-based writer and editor who specializes in lifestyle topics. Read more
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