World Heart Day – what our eyes can tell us about our risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD)

From an Australian perspective, cardiovascular disease (CVD) kills one person every 12 minutes, which equates to around 43,000 deaths per annum. 

Responsible for 25 percent of deaths in Australia each year, CVD is an all-encompassing term that includes heart, stroke and blood vessel diseases. It remains one of the nation’s largest health problems, costing the Australian economy $5 billion annually. 

This Friday 29th September, the World Heart Federation is encouraging the global community to embrace World Heart Day by taking proactive steps to prioritise our cardiovascular health and wellbeing.  

And believe it or not, booking an appointment with your optometrist is a great way to start. 

“Fascinatingly, your eyes can show telltale signs of cardiovascular disease before other symptoms present as they are the only place in the human body where we can clearly examine living blood vessels without trying to look through skin or make an incision,” said Dom Willson, optometrist and National Professional Services Advisor at Optometry Australia. 

"High blood pressure, high cholesterol, carotid artery disease, infections in the bloodstream and heart disease are all conditions that sometimes have tell-tale indicators in the eye that can be seen by an optometrist during a routine eye exam.” 

What our eyes can tell us about our risk of CVD 

While the eyes themselves don't directly diagnose CVD, they can reveal certain risk factors or associated conditions.  

"The various signs that optometrists see in the eyes may be indicative of underlying health issues and the catalyst for further investigation by an appropriate healthcare professional.” 

  • Hypertensive retinopathy is a condition where the blood vessels, including those in the retina of the eye, are affected by high blood pressure. An eye examination can detect signs of hypertensive retinopathy, such as narrowed blood vessels, retinal hemorrhages (bleeds), and even swelling of the optic nerve
  • Cholesterol deposits called xanthelasma occur when fatty yellow deposits form on the eyelids. While not a direct indicator of CVD, xanthelasma may suggest elevated levels of cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease
  • Arcus senilis is a gray or white ring that forms around the cornea of the eye. It is common in older adults but can appear at a younger age in individuals with elevated cholesterol levels
  • Diabetic retinopathy is a condition that affects the blood vessels in the retina due to diabetes-related changes. Since diabetes is a significant risk factor for CVD, regular eye exams can help detect and monitor diabetic retinopathy

How does CVD impact the eyes 

“Cardiovascular disease can affect the eyes through its impact on the circulatory system. The eyes, like other organs, rely on a healthy blood supply for proper functioning.” 

For example, CVD can lead to the formation of blood clots or atherosclerosis (plaque buildup) in blood vessels.  

If a clot or plaque dislodges and travels through the bloodstream, it can block a retinal blood vessel. This can result in sudden vision loss or visual disturbances in the affected eye. 

It may also cause a restriction of blood flow to the optic nerve, which is essential for transmitting visual information to the brain. 

By affecting blood supply to the optic nerve, CVD can lead to optic neuropathy and vision loss. 

Medications prescribed for CVD, such as beta-blockers or diuretics, can sometimes have side effects that affect vision as well; certain medications may cause dry eyes, blurred vision or changes in colour perception. 

“While it’s important to emphasise that optometrists do not directly diagnose or treat cardiovascular disease, they can play a crucial role in identifying potential risk factors or associated eye conditions that may warrant further evaluation.” 

Regular eye exams, combined with comprehensive healthcare assessments, contribute to a proactive approach to managing cardiovascular health and reducing the risk of heart disease. 

To book in your next eye examination, use our Find an Optometrist search tool to locate your nearest optometrist today.


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