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Your heart is a valuable and hidden organ, unable to be seen by the naked eye. Fortunately, your eyes just might be able to indicate the health of your heart and other parts of your body.
According to Australia’s Blue Mountains Eye Study, the presence of retinopathy increased the risk of death from a cardiovascular problem such as coronary heart disease. Retinopathy is a disease that usually affects both eyes and happens when blood vessels in your retina become damaged, most often from high blood sugar, or grow abnormally. If untreated, retinopathy sometimes results in vision impairment or loss.
The study was conducted over 12 years and followed almost 3,000 people. Researchers reviewed images taken of the participants’ retinas to tell if the participant had retinopathy. At the same time, researchers checked Australia’s National Death Index to see if any of the study participants died as a result of coronary heart disease. What they found was shocking: Participants with retinopathy were 33 percent more likely to die from coronary heart disease. That percentage went up even higher to 121 percent for participants with diabetes.
Because the retina is a site where the tiniest changes in circulation can be viewed without surgery, it is a great indicator of the same changes that may also occur in brain, heart and elsewhere in the body. This means doctors may be able to use images of your retina to check if you are at risk for medical problems such as a heart attack or stroke.
“Retinopathy is not only a window. It’s a canary in the coal mine showing the earliest signs of problems,” said Dr. JoAnn E. Mason, MD, DrPH, in American Medical News.
Retinopathy is most commonly associated with diabetes. Anyone with diabetes (Type I or Type II) is at high risk for what is known as diabetic retinopathy, and between 40 to 45 percent of Americans with diabetes have some stage of this disease. Since there are no symptoms or pain in the early stages, it is important to schedule a yearly comprehensive dilated eye exam.
However, this doesn’t mean you need to rush out to the nearest ophthalmologist and demand an image of your retina – just make sure you get a comprehensive ophthalmology exam during your next trip to the eye doctor.
So remember, this Valentine’s Day your eyes might save your heart from more than just aching and breaking over that special someone.