What Your Eyes Can Reveal About Heart Health

The eyes are the window to the … heart? Yep. In fact, your eyes can say a lot about your whole cardiovascular system

Nurse checking patient's eyes

When eye doctors look deep into a patient’s eyes, they can see a lot more than just vision-related problems. They also can spot early warning signs of cardiovascular disease, and even stroke.

The main reason? Eyes are fed by many blood vessels (including capillaries and arteries) that are so tiny that they are often the first to be affected by problems like a narrowing or hardening of the walls, which leads to leakage and rupturing.

So the eyes can serve as an early indicator that allows cardiovascular disease to be recognized and treated. In fact, here are two of the key questions your eyes can help answer:

Do I Have High Blood Pressure?

The link between high blood pressure and heart disease is well known. It can cause damage to blood vessels, arteries, and the heart muscle itself, increasing the risk of a heart attack, heart failure, or stroke.

Fortunately, by looking at the blood vessels of the retina (located in the back of the eye), an eye doctor can detect changes that may signal future problems with blood pressure. This can be done using a dilated eye exam—or a newer method called retinal image screening, in which the eye is scanned with a laser to create a digital image.

Some of the early warning signs of high blood pressure that eye doctors can detect include:

  • A narrowing of the arteries
  • Bleeding and/or fluid leakage (can also be a possible sign of diabetes, which increases high blood pressure risk)
  • Inflammation behind the retina
  • Optic nerve damage
  • Silver- or copper-colored arteries
  • Hardened arteries that cross over and indent veins
  • Spots on/in the eye

Am I at Risk for a Stroke?

Your eyes are actually part of the brain, so they can also serve as an early warning system for a stroke, which is the fifth leading cause of death and the number one cause of disability in the United States, according to the American Stroke Association.

A stroke happens when a blood vessel that feeds the brain gets clogged or bursts. This prevents oxygen and nutrients from reaching part of the brain, leading to brain cell damage and, in some cases, death.

Sometimes, a similar type of blood flow disruption happens in the blood vessels that feed the retina, or the optic nerve. This is known as an “eye stroke.” The most common symptom of an eye stroke is sudden, painless vision loss in one eye—often, people wake up in the morning with this symptom.

Because eye stroke has been associated with a future brain-related stroke, it is essential for a patient with this diagnosis to seek immediate testing at a stroke center or see a neurologist for evaluation. The risk of stroke is highest in the first few days after an eye stroke, so time is of the essence.

Note: Because stroke and cardiovascular disease share many of the same risk factors, an eye stroke can also be an indicator of undiagnosed heart disease.

Bottom line: It’s wise to visit your eye doctor on a regular basis. Yes, they’ll check your vision, but what they find in the process might be even more important.