You've probably heard that your eyes are the window to your soul, but you probably didn't know that they are also the window to what's going on in your body.
In fact, did you know that serious diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure can all be detected through a routine eye exam? And that, eye doctors, are sometimes the first to detect signs of a health condition, long before your family physician can?
But, according to a survey, even though 84% of people rate vision as their most important sense organ, and 97% of people agree that vision health is important to them — only 50% of people actually get an eye exam.
And literally no one, apart from a minuscule 1% of people, know that "serious diseases and conditions like high blood pressure, autoimmune disorders, thyroid diseases, and certain types of cancers" can all be detected through a routine eye exam.
In this post, we'll cover the benefits of early detection and how a routine eye exam can save your life, serious diseases your eye doctor can detect, and how often you should get your eyes checked.
Table of Contents
- Can an Eye Exam Save Your Life?
- How an Eye Exam Can Detect Disease
- Serious Diseases an Eye Exam Can Detect
- High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)
- High Cholesterol and Heart Disease
- Risk of Stroke
- Thyroid Disease
- Crohn's and Lyme Disease
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia
- Drug Abuse and Toxicity
- Nutritional Deficiencies
- When to Get an Eye Exam?
- Key Takeaways
Can an Eye Exam Save Your Life?
Most people, you and I included, don't think of going to the doctor unless we notice something is wrong. The same is true for eye exams. Unless people start to notice that they have a change in their vision, they will rarely take action.
What most people don't realize is a routine eye exam can often be as effective as an annual physical at detecting health issues.
Even though our body may have different organs with different functions — everything is interconnected, and issues in one part of the body can influence another. So, in one sense if one "part" of you is unwell, the other parts are also not going to function as well, at least to a certain degree.
Unfortunately, very few people have this holistic view of their bodies. The standard thinking is that you only go to a dentist if there is something wrong with your teeth, or to an eye doctor if there is something wrong with your vision, but that's just not true. For example, just like an oral dental exam can detect acute leukemia, an eye exam can detect diseases that are not just limited to the eyes.
How an Eye Exam Can Detect Disease
During a routine eye exam, especially a thorough exam where your pupils are dilated (widened by using special drops), an eye doctor can get a full, clear view of your optic nerve, which is connected to your brain, and all of the blood vessels in the eyes — without any surgery.
This can help practitioners to identify eye conditions such as digital eye strain, dry eyes, and cataracts, but also catch degenerative conditions such as glaucoma, and age-related macular degeneration early, so intervention in the form lifestyle changes and nutrient-rich vision supplements can be started to protect the eyes from further impairment.
But the eyes can also spot disease in other places in the body. The eyes essentially have the same tissue as other key organs in the body and are a critical part of the body's nervous system. Hence, any anomalies detected in the eyes can suggest similar changes in other areas of the body.
For example, ophthalmologists can observe irregularities in the blood vessels of the retina, called diabetic retinopathy. This can indicate that the individual may have diabetes, even before a blood glucose test is done.
You can see what this looks like below:
So, diagnosis done earlier on can help to prevent further complications down the road, not just for the eyes but for the body as a whole.
Next, we'll take a look at serious health conditions that the eye can detect.
Serious Diseases an Eye Exam Can Detect
Before we get into all of the different eye diseases that can be detected by an eye exam, let's look into a study titled, "Impact of Eye Exams in Identifying Chronic Conditions," where eye care practitioners (ECPs) were responsible for or directly contributed to identifying a disease.
The study resulted in more than "4,000 chronic conditions" being identified by an eye care practitioner, with the most common conditions being "diabetes (1,453), high cholesterol (1,343) and hypertension (1,001)". Other chronic conditions include rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and multiple sclerosis. ECPs were also able to detect autoimmune disorders, thyroid issues, and neurological conditions.
The study concluded that "a comprehensive dilated eye exam can assess the advancement of the disease, how well the disease is being controlled and any ocular effects of medication to treat the disease. Early intervention of high cost chronic diseases has significant benefits such as lower average annual long term health costs and improved health outcomes."
Next, let's take a look at the top diseases an eye exam can detect.
Did you know that 1.5 million Americans are diagnosed with diabetes every year? And that, 10% of the nation's population, around 30 million Americans, live with the condition every day.
A survey suggested that although 61% of Americans worry about the impact of diabetes affecting their family, only 4% know that an eye doctor can detect the early onset of the condition through an eye exam.
When examining the eyes the doctor may notice capillaries and damaged blood vessels in the eyes leaking blood or a yellow-colored fluid, indicating a detrimental blood sugar level. This condition, called diabetic retinopathy, causes damage to the eye's retina and is the leading cause of blindness in Americans aged 20-64 years old.
Diabetic retinopathy does not cause any major changes in vision overnight, so you may not even know that you have it. Only an eye test can detect it, as the changes in vision are very gradual. So, if detected and treated early, the risk of vision loss can be cut down significantly.
With early detection, you can take proper precautions by controlling your sugar intake, and make lifestyle changes in the form of proper diet and exercise.
You can also start health supplements that can help to control your diabetes such as spirulina and krill oil.
Supplementing with spirulina has shown to lower blood sugar levels considerably. The results of a recent study provided, "substantial evidence that spirulina supplementation has favorable effect on select cardiovascular and metabolic biomarkers in humans, including lipid, glucose and diastolic blood pressure (DBP) management."
Krill oil has also demonstrated the ability to reverse the effects of insulin resistance. Krill oil supplements help to breakdown glucose in organs such as the liver so there is less sugar floating in the bloodstream, leading to "reduced fasting blood glucose, and improved glucose tolerance."
High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)
In the United States, 1 out of every 3 adults has high blood pressure, which is close to 75 million people or 32% of the American adult population. Also known as hypertension, the condition causes over 1000+ deaths a day. Since hypertension is often symptomless, it is hard to detect, so if spotted in an eye exam, it can literally be life-saving.
Eye doctors can start to see the early signs of hypertension in the form of weak or narrow arteries, and tears or kinks in the blood vessels of the eyes, during a dilated eye exam. These changes are caused by blood forcefully passing through the blood vessels in the retina, leading to what is known as "hypertensive retinopathy," which can cause retinal vascular damage.
The walls of the blood vessels may thicken and narrow, restricting blood flow to the retina. In certain cases, the retina may swell up, limiting its function, and there may even be bleeding in the eye. Nicks or kinks in the arteries at the back of the eye almost always suggests hypertension.
These changes can also indicate a high risk of stroke, heart disease, an aneurysm, and indicate more complications.
Ophthalmologists will refer patients who demonstrate these symptoms to the patient's family doctor who can help them to make the lifestyle changes needed to prevent cardiovascular disease.
There are also supplements such as forskolin that have shown to regulate blood pressure, especially if caught early.
One research study showed that forskolin or Coleus forskohlii extract helped to reduce high blood pressure in 75% of participants and is an "effective anti-hypertensive." The study also stated that if patients are supplemented with forskolin "on the early detection of hypertension then the unnecessary use of powerful synthetic drugs, causing a number of adverse effects, can be effectively avoided."
High Cholesterol and Heart Disease
High cholesterol, when not controlled properly, is often a "silent killer," as it doesn't have any perceived symptoms.
When your cholesterol is high, fatty deposits or blockages can develop in the blood vessels. A sudden break of these deposits can cause a clot that can lead to a sudden heart attack or stroke.
These blockages or plaques can also be seen in the eyes as small particles of cholesterol streaming through the eye's blood vessels. The cornea of the eye may also appear to be yellow or have a yellowish ring around it, indicating high cholesterol.
The back of the eye has high blood flow, and part of the eye is also connected to the brain, so whatever affects the brain is sure to affect the eye as well. When your eye doctor spots plaques in the blood vessels and other related changes, it could indicate that you have high cholesterol and are at a risk for heart disease. They will usually refer you to your family doctor to run tests to confirm this.
Pumpkin seed oil supplements have shown to have "cardioprotective effects," as they contain high amounts of essential fatty acids, are an amazing anti-inflammatory, are rich in antioxidants, and support heart health.
Risk of Stroke
Just like blood vessel blockages in the eyes can detect a risk of heart disease, they can also show a higher risk of stroke.
If you have a sudden vision change, this could also mean a stroke rather than a problem with your eyes or a malfunction in your prescription glasses. Similar to a stroke in the brain, an eye stroke, or retinal artery occlusion, can happen when blood flow is blocked to the retina, due to a blood clot. This can lead to sudden blurry vision, and even vision loss if not treated promptly.
Especially for older patients, an annual dilated eye exam may help to catch the early sign of plaque and deposits in the eye and help to detect a stroke before it even happens.
Most people think that arthritis is just an inflammation of the joints, but some forms of it such as rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis are actually autoimmune forms of the illness, where your immune system considers your joints to be "foreign" and mistakenly attacks them.
Autoimmune conditions such as arthritis can affect other parts of the body, and the inflammation can also be seen in the eyes, which in medical terms is known as uveitis. This same inflammation that attacks the joints can also gradually damage the eye.
In fact, in many cases when patients come to an eye doctor complaining of burning or dryness in their eyes, it could be an early indication of rheumatoid arthritis, especially when combined with other symptoms such as severe joint pain and dry mouth.
Therefore, going to an ophthalmologist for a yearly eye exam is critical to catch arthritis early, or if you have already been diagnosed with arthritis, an annual exam is necessary to make sure your ocular health is fine as if seen in the eye the consequences can be severe without treatment.
Astaxanthin is an amazing antioxidant and is hailed as a "super nutrient" that fights inflammation and degeneration and protects the eyes against blurry vision, cataracts, eye strain, glaucoma, and age-related macular degeneration.
Studies have shown that it can also help in treating and controlling arthritis. Research has demonstrated that participants with rheumatoid arthritis who took 12mg astaxanthin daily over a placebo group for 8 weeks dropped their pain scores by 35% and had an overall satisfaction score of 40% in their ability to perform day to day activities over the placebo group.
Besides rheumatoid arthritis, eye doctors can often spot signs of other autoimmune diseases in the eyes as well. For instance, bulging eyes could be a symptom of a condition known as Graves disease or hyperthyroidism (when the thyroid gland overproduces thyroid hormone), or frequently red and inflamed eyes may point to Lyme Disease, a bacterial infection.
If you find that your eyelashes are thinning this could also indicate thyroid disease, but retracting eyelids along with bulging eyes (protruding eyeballs), is one of the telltale signs that you may have an issue with your thyroid.
If your eye doctor suspects this during the eye exam, they may refer you to your general practitioner to get some tests done to confirm the diagnosis.
Crohn's and Lyme Disease
If you have recurring inflammation and redness in your eyes for no apparent reason, it could indicate a deeper issue. Sure, there are many reasons that your eyes could get inflamed — allergies, eye strain, an infection, just to name a few. But if eye inflammation is happening unusually often, your eye doctor may suspect an underlying issue such as Crohn’s disease or Lyme disease.
An autoimmune disorder, Crohn's disease actually affects the GI tract and can cause nausea, constipation, diarrhea, rectal bleeding, and pain. But in fact, one of the early signs of Crohn's disease can be redness and eye pain, as the immune system can attack the eye's delicate tissues. So even before the inflammation is detected in the gastrointestinal tract, eye inflammation can alert eye doctors of this condition.
Another autoimmune condition, Lyme disease can also lead to redness, irritation, itchiness, and inflammation. It is also connected to ocular symptoms like light sensitivity and floaters.
So if you are frequently experiencing these symptoms, make sure to let your eye care professional know. Untreated, Lyme disease can lead to inflammation of the optic nerve (optic neuritis), inflammation of the retina (retinitis), and macular edema (fluid buildup and swelling in the macula of the eye).
It's estimated that nearly 1 million people in the U.S. are living with multiple sclerosis (MS), a serious progressive condition that affects the central nervous system.
An autoimmune condition, in MS the immune system attacks the myelin or protective covering of the nerves, which affects the brain, spine and the eyes.
An eye doctor can examine how healthy the optic nerve is by examining the back of the eye with a dilated fundus exam. If the ophthalmologist detects any early signs of MS-related vision problems, they may refer the patient to get an MRI to verify the diagnosis.
This was supported by research done at Johns Hopkins University which suggested that a 5-minute eye exam could be an "effective way to gauge and track" MS.
Chief CNN medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta stated that "The optic nerve, which is behind the eye, is actually part of the brain. In fact, it's the only part of the brain you can see from the outside. A common early warning sign that you may have MS is vision problems that originate in the optic nerve. So a damaged optic nerve becomes a perfect place to look for early MS."
Since early treatment has shown to slow down the progression of this life-long condition, early detection through a routine eye exam is key to better manage the condition.
Do you wear sunglasses when out in the sun? Well, if you don't, you should. Just like your skin, your eyes are also vulnerable to the sun's harsh UV (ultraviolet) rays. An eye exam can detect effects of UV damage, in the form of freckles at the back of the eye.
Eye freckles known as choroidal nevus occur in 7% of adults and although some can be benign, some can grow into a malignant melanoma or cancer, which can only be detected by an eye doctor by dilating the eye and examining it under a bright light and magnifying lens.
If detected, early intervention can help to save your vision. This is why protecting your eyes by wearing sunglasses and getting a routine eye exam is important.
But an eye exam can detect more than just eye freckles.
It can also help to detect basal cell carcinoma, or eyelid cancer, which can even spread to the brain through the eye. While skin cancer of the eyelid is rarely fatal, if left untreated it can damage the tissues of the eyes.
If your ophthalmologist notices a difference in your eye's structure and suspects ocular melanoma or skin cancer of the eye, they may refer you to a specialist.
Even though we discussed that an eye exam can detect cancers in or around the eye, what you may not know is that a dilated eye exam may actually even be able to detect the early sign of a possible brain tumor.
When a brain tumor is present, it can show as a swelling of the optic nerve, due to the pressure on it from the tumor. At times, irregular pupils or a droopy eyelid may also indicate an aneurysm (a bulging blood vessel) or a tumor.
Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia
Researchers are saying that a simple eye exam may be able to reveal your risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. A Harvard article documented that common eye conditions such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD), glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy can all point to an increased risk of Alzheimer's and dementia.
Research suggests that all of the above three eye conditions are actually linked to cardiovascular disease. The study authors focused on 3,800 participants with and without eye disease. Out of this 792 went on to develop dementia.
They discovered the following:
- Participants with age-related macular degeneration were 20% more likely to develop dementia as compared to those who did not have AMD.
- Participants with diabetic retinopathy were 44% more likely to develop dementia than those without.
- Participants who were recently diagnosed with glaucoma had a 44% higher rate of dementia.
The eye test is a simple one and could be available at your ophthalmologist's office or even a health center, as per this short but revealing video below. The test basically allows practitioners to look for plaque deposits at the back of the eye in very high-resolution clarity. These plaques that occur in the brain, also show up in the retina, which is basically an extension of the brain.
The importance of a non-invasive eye test such as this is to diagnose Alzheimer's before the disease become symptomatic, as you'll see below:
This video, along with the research above shows that once the risks are identified through eye screening, early intervention in the form of lifestyle changes, proper diet and exercise, and adequate sleep can all help to possibly prevent Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.
It is also highly beneficial to complement lifestyle changes with rich nutrients such as black currant oil which is known to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, due to its high concentrations and excellent ratio between ALA (Omega-3) and GLA (Omega-6) essential fatty acids, that are very hard to come by in the diet alone.
This ratio is also crucial for improving mental health issues and can help ease symptoms of ADHD, depression, dementia, Parkinson's disease, and other brain disorders.
Drug Abuse and Toxicity
Although not a serious illness in itself, drug abuse and toxicity is a serious condition, with drug overdose deaths having tripled since 1990.
Research shows that "all of the major drugs of abuse, including cocaine, marijuana, amphetamine, phencyclidine, heroin, and alcohol, may produce typical eye signs that can be easily detected by a rapid eye test."
The eye test can reveal signs which include, "ptosis, abnormal pupil size, nonreactivity of the pupil to a light challenge, nystagmus, and non-convergence. When eye signs are detected, drug use should be confirmed by analysis of body fluids."
Although the rapid eye test is suitable for screening individuals, employees, and athletes, it is also helpful for patients who are on a certain drug and need to be tested for drug toxicity.
For example, patients taking the drug Plaquenil, need to get their eyes checked at least once or twice a year, to indicate any drug toxicity which can cause "macular damage prior to irreversible vision loss."
If you are unknowingly deficient in one or more nutrients, it could lead to more serious conditions in the long-term and pose a threat to your health and vision.
A routine eye exam can often be the first to detect anemia, a condition in which the blood hemoglobin count is less than normal, indicating deficiencies in different nutrients such as iron, zinc, proteins, and vitamin B12. Eye doctors can check for anemia by examining the vascular area of the eyes and checking to see if they are white or red, indicating low red blood cells.
Eye doctors can also check for vitamin A deficiency in a routine eye exam. Vitamin A is essential for immunity, fertility and for the heart, kidneys, lungs and other organs to function properly. It is also critical for eye health.
A drop in this essential vitamin can be detected through clouding in the surface of the eye, corneal dryness, and ulcers, damage in the retina, night blindness, and vision loss.
A groundbreaking study has shown that Vitamin A, along with other vitamins can decrease the risk of vision loss caused by age-related macular degeneration.
"In the landmark Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) sponsored by the National Eye Institute, people with mild or moderate AMD who took a daily multivitamin that included vitamin A (as beta-carotene), vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc and copper had a 25 percent reduced risk of advanced AMD during a six-year period."
While high dosages of vitamin A can be toxic, supplementing with beta-carotene has "never been found to cause vitamin A toxicity" because as soon as the body has adequate amounts of vitamin A, a down-regulation of beta-carotene occurs in the body.
Beta-carotene supplements may help delay the progression of vision problems, while also being the best way to get vitamin A into your body safely. GoodlifeProvision's beta-carotene supplements are enhanced with organic extra virgin olive oil to help maximize absorption!
When to Get an Eye Exam?
Let's face it — almost all health conditions can benefit from being diagnosed early. Having regular eye examinations can play a crucial role not just in protecting your vision, but your overall health and wellness.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) recommends that adults should get a dilated eye exam at the age of 40 when early signs of degeneration or risk factors can start to appear. If you have a family history of eye conditions such as AMD and glaucoma or illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure, it is advised to see your ophthalmologist sooner.
Watch this brief video below to see what you can expect in a 45-90 minute dilated eye exam:
It's a misconception that you only need to get your eyes checked after you reach a certain age. Even if you have no perceivable vision issues, follow the schedule below to have your eyes checked as per your age:
- Ages 20-40: Every 5-10 years
- Ages 40-54: Every 2-4 years
- Ages 55-64: Every 1-3 years
- Ages 65+: Every 1-2 years
If your ophthalmologist spots something unusual during your eye exam, they may refer you to your family doctor or to a specialist to confirm a diagnosis, or for further testing.
- Serious diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure can all be detected through an eye exam
- A dilated eye exam is a non-invasive procedure where an eye doctor can get a full, clear view of your optic nerve, which is connected to your brain, and all of the blood vessels in the eyes
- Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in Americans aged 20-64. When detected early it can help you to manage your blood sugar levels and improve your vision and overall health
- Since hypertension (high blood pressure) is often symptomless, it is hard to detect, so if spotted in an eye exam, it can be life-saving
- When your eye doctor spots plaques in the blood vessels, it could indicate that you have high cholesterol and are at a risk for heart disease.
- An eye exam can also detect autoimmune conditions such as arthritis, Crohn’s and Lyme Disease and multiple sclerosis
- Eye doctors can also spot cancer, tumors and even drug toxicity in a routine eye exam
- Taking vision supplements can help to protect your eyesight and your overall health and well-being