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Eyes: Windows to the cardiovascular system

Opthalmology Instrument

Ophthalmologists and optometrists have a unique perspective on a patient’s cardiovascular system because the eye is the only place in the body where doctors get a glimpse of the health of a patient’s blood vessels without the use of imaging technology.

Issues with the blood vessels in the eye typically indicate an issue that runs throughout the body, including both known and unknown ailments.

Melanie Pickett, OD, a member of the Indiana University School of Medicine Department of Ophthalmology faculty, said ophthalmologists and optometrists are trained to exam the eye’s blood vessels as well as its other major structures, such as the retina, cornea and tissues.

They might notice, for example, a buildup of cholesterol in the cornea, Pickett said. Within the cornea, cholesterol doesn’t pose a threat to the patient’s health; but it can be an indication of high cholesterol and buildups in other areas of the body—increasing the patient’s risk of heart attack and stroke.

Eyes can also reveal blood clots, leaks and hypertension. If those conditions are affecting the blood vessels of the eyes, they’re affecting the rest of the body, Pickett said. 

Ophthalmologists and optometrists who discover these conditions in their patients will refer them to primary-care doctors or specialists who can properly treat or monitor the disorders, she said.

Many blindness-causing eye diseases are tied to the cardiovascular system, as well.

For example, retinal vascular occlusion is caused by a blockage in a vein of the retina. Wet macular degeneration occurs when abnormal blood vessels leak fluid into the retina causing blurry vision and blind spots. One of the leading factors of blindness is diabetic retinopathy, a series of complications of diabetes in which abnormal blood sugar levels cause damage to the blood vessels in the retina over time. As the diabetic blood vessels become less healthy, they can leak and grow abnormal new blood vessels, compromising vision and potentially causing blindness.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
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Caitlin VanOverberghe

Caitlin VanOverberghe is a communications coordinator for the Indiana University School of Medicine, where she supports the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and the Department of Ophthalmology. Having earned degrees in journalism and telecommunications ...