Even though most of us know that the organs and systems of the body are interconnected, the relationship between the eyes and heart is especially intimate. In fact, the heart and the eyes are so closely connected that heart related problems can pose particular risks for vision disorders, and cardiac conditions can often be diagnosed through the eye prior to a patient experiencing symptoms.
“I think we’re all aware that the eye really can be the first manifestation of systemic disease, whether it be cardiovascular disease or other systemic diseases,” says Ivana Kim, MD. “The eye is unique in that that’s one of the only areas where we can actually directly visualize blood vessels.”
These delicate vessels, particularly those in the intensely vascularized retina, are vulnerable to damage from hypertension, vein occlusions, and macular degeneration – all implicated in cardiovascular complications.
Evidence of these problems can be detected by ophthalmologists with a retina examination, allowing them to play a significant role in the early diagnosis of cardiovascular disease.
Hypertension is a general cardiovascular disease that can predispose the patient to developing a variety of eye problems. Alterations to the appearances of retinal vessels can be a sign of high blood pressure, even for patients who have no idea they’re suffering from such.
Even in the early stages of hypertension an ophthalmologist can see vascular changes in their patients’ eyes, detecting any number of arteriolar vessel changes, including, says Dr. Kim, “how they cross one another, become narrower or nicked, or create infarcts in the retina.”
“Narrowing of the carotid artery caused by atherosclerotic plaque that can predispose you to stroke can also predispose you to have a blockage of a retinal arteriole, either central or branch, and can lead to vision loss,” Dr. Kim explains. “It’s like having a stroke in the eye, basically. It leads to vision loss due to loss of blood supply to an area of the retina.”
Cardiovascular disease and age-related macular degeneration (AMD) have overlapping risk factors that include smoking, high cholesterol levels, a sedentary lifestyle, and obesity (obesity is often associated with diabetes, which significantly increases the chances of blindness).
Preventative measures for heart disease and AMD are remarkably similar, so what lowers your risk of heart disease also lowers your risk of AMD and other eye problems. First and foremost is not smoking (smoking is the #1 risk factor in both heart disease and AMD).
The second most important preventative measure is a diet rich in leafy greens, fibrous fruits and vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids. Exercise – particularly of the vigorous variety that significantly raises your heart rate – and weight control are also critical to both heart and eye health. (Though weight tends to naturally be healthy when a person’s diet is balanced and they’re exercising regularly.)
The short of it is that eye health and heart health are intimately related, and making lifestyle changes that affect one will affect the other.
At OCLI we’re full-service vision health providers who can help you with all of your eyecare needs. Give us a call today and see why we’re known as being the friendliest, most comprehensive, and most advanced eye care providers around!