Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Gregory House, The Mentalist, Psych detective Shawn Spencer—much of the appeal of these larger-than-life brainiac characters comes from their ability to notice mundane details. These details seem perfectly innocuous and routine to the rest of us, but the characters then connect those details to much broader and more dramatic conclusions. They get to be the hero largely because of their observational powers.
Sometimes eye doctors get to be heroes in much the same way. Eye health can have implications for other body systems. Much like the details that Sherlock Holmes or Dr. House note, changes in your vision that you might not even be aware of can tell a trained eye much more than you’d imagine about what’s going on in your heart, liver, pancreas, and even brain.
Case in point is the Tennessee retiree whose annual eye exam implied that he might have cardiac issues completely unknown to him. When the doctor examining Robert Waters took a look at his retina, she noticed a small clot in one of the tiny blood vessels there. An urgent follow-up with a cardiologist found that the arteries of his heart were 90-percent blocked, and he had surgery to clear them just weeks later. This small detail that Dr. Rebecca Taylor noticed might very well have saved Mr. Waters’ life.
Other cases, while not as dramatic, are no less life-saving. The American Optometric Association cites a figure of 240,000 cases of diabetes first detected by an eye doctor in 2014. Diabetes is not primarily an eye disease, but diabetic changes in the eye can show up before other warning signs. Inflammation plays a significant role in the damage to the optic nerve and leaky blood vessels that causes blindness, just as it does with other body systems in diabetes.
Besides heart attack and diabetes, other systemic health conditions that eye doctors can detect are:
- Potential strokes
- Autoimmune diseases including lupus
- Arthritis of several types, such as Sjogren’s syndrome
- Sickle cell disease
- Cancers like melanoma, which can occur in the pigmented part of the eye
- Potential aneurism
- Thyroid disorders, such as Graves' disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- High cholesterol
- Parkinson’s disease
The information pointing to these conditions is readily available to a trained eye because “the eye is the only place in the body where a doctor can have an unobstructed view of our blood vessels, nerves and connecting tissue — without any need for surgery.” And because it’s all connected when it comes to our body parts, like the song about our leg bones says. Diseases might show up there first because “the eye has the same microscopic tissue as our other major organs, and...abnormalities spotted in the eye may signal the same changes in other parts of the body,” according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Details like the color of the cornea or the presence of plaques on the retina are clues to conditions like high cholesterol that may be wreaking havoc on other body systems.
It’s important to note that these clues will not show up in a simple vision screening or visual acuity test commonly used to fill glasses and contact prescriptions. Only a comprehensive dilated eye exam includes all the tests necessary to gather clues to systemic disease. Doctors must be able to examine your retina, test your ocular pressure, and perform evaluations of your eye health, not just your visual clarity, in order to draw any conclusions about the health of your eyes and the rest of your body.
See your eye care professional every year for your annual comprehensive dilated eye exam. Keep an eye on your health by keeping an eye on your eyes.