What Are Your Eyes Trying to Tell You?

An eye exam will, of course, let you know the state of your vision. But did you know that it can also provide a window into your general health? More than simply conduits that allow you to see what's in front of you, your eyes can reveal the presence of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other health conditions, and are valuable tools in helping you manage your overall wellness. So, what are you eyes trying to tell you?

  • Heart disease and high blood pressure. According to a study published in the journal Heart, retinopathy, or damage to the retina (the tissue lining the back of the eye) is a marker for cardiovascular disease. In this study, conducted at the University of Melbourne in Australia, retinal photographs taken over a 12-year period were examined, along with information about which study participants had subsequently died of cardiovascular problems. Researchers concluded that there was a correlation between damage to the retina and death from heart problems. Eye doctors also can tell if someone has high blood pressure-often a narrowing of the retinal blood vessels is a giveaway.
  • Diabetes. Diabetes and eye problems, unfortunately, go hand in hand. The disease causes problems with the tiny vessels in the retina, causing them to leak blood and weaken. In fact, diabetes is the number one cause of blindness in this country. It's extremely important for anyone with signs of diabetes or prediabetes to get regular eye exams in order to track the progression of the disease.
  • Graves' disease. People with the autoimmune disorder Graves' disease can manifest symptoms in their eyes. Sufferers emit antibodies that mistakenly attack the thyroid gland, which then revs up and produces massive amounts of antibodies, some of which attack the tissues behind the eye and cause them to protrude.
  • Liver disease. The eyes may offer clues to the presence of liver disease. People whose livers aren't functioning normally may have jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and eyeballs due to the presence of high levels of bilirubin (bile pigment). Jaundice also can be caused when large numbers of red blood cells break down.

The bottom line? Don't skip your yearly eye exam—it just may give you valuable information about your entire body.

Source: Liew G, Wong TY, Mitchell P, Cheung N, and Wang JJ, "Retinopathy predicts coronary heart disease mortality." Heart, Mar 2009; 95: 391 - 394.