Your eyes do more than just take in information from your surroundings. They can also reflect what’s inside.
In fact, our eyes have the ability to reveal information about our health that might otherwise go unnoticed, including blood pressure, whether we have diabetes, and whether we have genetic health conditions. This makes regular eye exams even more important, as your eye doctor can learn about some health indicators you may have missed.
Especially as you age, your vision may undergo some changes, so it’s important to keep your eyes healthy. Here’s a closer look at what health conditions your eyes can give you, sometimes before you even notice symptoms.
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According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the eye is the only place where doctors can see blood vessels in “real time” without invasive surgery. This means your eye doctor may first see evidence of high blood pressure (which often has no symptoms), high cholesterol, stroke, and other health conditions related to heart health.
The AAO noted that research published in The Lancet in 2021 found that reduced blood flow from heart disease (ischemia) may cause damage to the retina, which can be seen on retinal scans. Heart disease is the number one killer in the United States, and the sooner it is detected, the better.
If a retinal scan is not already available during your eye exam, ask your doctor for one.
High blood pressure can not only lead to heart problems or heart disease, but it can also increase the risk of certain eye diseases, including glaucoma and macular degeneration, according to the AOA. Because of the way it affects blood vessels, it may be seen during an eye exam.
Diabetes is common (approximately 1 in 10 Americans have diabetes), and its symptoms often appear in the eyes. Diabetes can cause partial vision loss, double the risk of glaucoma, increase the risk of cataracts, and lead to diabetic retinopathy.
Diabetic retinopathy is when high blood sugar causes blood vessels in the eyes to swell, leak, or close. According to the American Diabetes Association, as of 2017, diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness among adults in the developed world. Therefore, retinal scans are often recommended for diabetic patients because of the damage it can cause to the retina.
Symptoms of diabetic retinopathy (and signs that you should see a doctor as soon as possible) include blurred vision, sudden appearance of large numbers of “floaters,” blurred or fluctuating vision, and dark or hollow vision. If you have diabetes, you should have a dilated eye exam to examine your retinas and check for retinopathy.
According to the AOA, colored deposits around the cornea of the eye may mean high cholesterol, especially in people younger than 40 years old. It may also appear as blood vessel deposits on the retina and appear as yellowish bumps around the eyes.
If you have these eye symptoms, you should seek medical attention immediately as they can often lead to more serious medical conditions or stroke.
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Autoimmune and genetic conditions
Rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and other autoimmune diseases can all affect the eyes. According to the AOA, about 30 percent of people with lupus develop dry eye syndrome. Many people with multiple sclerosis develop vision problems, which can be one of the early symptoms of the disease.
According to AARP, the first symptom in people with Parkinson’s disease is often nystagmus.
People with sickle cell disease, a blood disorder, may also develop eye or vision problems, including retinal damage. According to the American Association of Retina Specialists, annual screening is recommended starting at age 10 for people diagnosed with sickle cell retinopathy.
While eye problems may not always be the first symptom of a genetic or autoimmune disease, early detection may help reduce the risk of eye damage or more serious consequences.
According to the World Health Organization, night blindness (the inability to see in low light) is one of the first symptoms of vitamin A deficiency. While there are many causes of dry eyes, vitamin A deficiency can also cause very dry eyes.
In addition to vitamin A, your body needs a balanced diet rich in vitamins and other nutrients to thrive—including your eyes. Foods rich in zinc, vitamin E and vitamin C may all benefit vision health.
As the Cleveland Clinic points out, vitamin A deficiency is less common in the United States because we tend to get enough vitamin A from food, but it can affect people who have liver disease or whose bodies have trouble absorbing the vitamin. If you are deficient in any vitamins or minerals, you should talk to your doctor about supplements suitable for your needs.
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too much screen time
Although you can’t see it on a retinal scan, staring at a screen all day isn’t good for your eyes. There’s no evidence that the blue light emitted by screens is directly linked to eye damage or health, but it has been found to disrupt your sleep and cause eye strain symptoms, including dry eyes, headaches, and more.
If you see your doctor with symptoms of eye strain or eyestrain from looking at the computer all day, they may recommend that you take more breaks from your desk or start practicing the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look 20 feet away object for 20 seconds. This will help your eyes shift focus and give them a break (and more blinks).
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Other health conditions
Viral and bacterial infections can also occur in the eyes, causing conjunctivitis (pink eye). Pink eye can be caused by respiratory viruses that cause cold symptoms, or it can even be caused by sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia or gonorrhea.
Sometimes, an infection may develop in the cornea. Herpes simplex virus 1, a virus that commonly causes oral cold sores, is the most common cause of corneal infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because eye infections can be serious and, in extreme cases, cause vision loss, it’s important to get treatment regardless of the cause.
Ophthalmologists also may spot signs of more urgent and serious health problems, including tumors or aneurysms, according to the AOA and Versant Health. The agency says increased pressure near the back of the eye may cause changes in the optic nerve that doctors may detect. If certain subtle signs are detected behind the eye (which is not always the case), your ophthalmologist will refer you to another specialist.
Manage your health by managing your eyes
While some health effects that occur in the eyes are uncontrollable, such as autoimmune and genetic disorders, you can’t go wrong with simple lifestyle adjustments, like eating an overall healthy diet—which also benefits vision—and making Regular physical activity. Staying regularly active and eating nutritious foods most of the time is especially important to manage preventable or manageable health conditions, such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol.
It’s also important to keep up with annual eye exams and recommended retinal screenings if you’re at higher risk for eye damage from common chronic health conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure. Because your eyes are a part of your body, and a vital one, pay attention when they are showing you information about your health.