The eyes could be an indicator of underlying serious heart disease and stroke, according to a recent study. Patients with a certain form of Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD), which is the leading cause of blindness in older adults in the United States, are most likely to have underlying serious heart diseases or stroke.

Their findings reveal that arrangements of the blood vessels at the back of the eye are strongly associated with heart health. As a result, any damage or alterations in the body’s vital organs could reflect easily in the eye.

Moreover, the study published in BMJ Open Opthalmology is the first ever study to establish a new link between heart diseases to a certain form of AMD – the one with subretinal drusenoid deposits (SDDs).

Insufficient blood reaching the eyes associated with these cardiovascular diseases is a major contributing factor. “We also have strong evidence for what actually happens: the blood supply to the eye is directly diminished by these diseases, either by heart damage that diminishes blood supply throughout the body, or from a blocked carotid artery that directly impedes blood flow to the eye. A poor blood supply can cause damage to any part of the body, and with these specific diseases, the destroyed retina and leftover SDDs are that damage. Retinal damage means vision loss, and can lead to blindness”, explains study lead author, Roland Theodore Smith, a professor of Opthalmology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It’s worth noting that Subretinal Drusenoid Deposits (SDDs) are strongly associated with early AMD and are found above the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) just below the retinal cells where damage mostly occurs and causes blindness. Currently, there are no known treatments for SDDs and they’re only detectable through high-tech retinal imaging.

The research team, led by Roland Theodore Smith, performed eye examinations on over 200 AMD patients. They then used retinal imaging to assess patients for SDD. The team excluded participants with advanced AMD and other severe eye diseases. Of the 200 AMD patients, 79 were men and 121 were women. Participants were then grouped into those with and without existing heart diseases with the aid of questionnaires. 

The study authors found that 97 participants had SDDs and 103 only drusen. In addition, out of the 200 AMD patients, 47 participants had serious cardiovascular diseases and 40 out of these 47 had SDDs. On the other hand, of the 153 participants with no heart disease or stroke, 57 out of the 153 were found to have SDDs. This, therefore, led the researchers to conclude that those with severe cases of heart disease or stroke are nine times more likely to have SDDS compared to those without them.

At this level, it is clear that eye doctors would be the first physicians to detect any case of systemic disease, including in patients with no obvious symptoms. The study authors believe early detection of SDDs in the retina should prompt the eye doctor to issue a referral to the patient’s primary care provider, particularly if no heart doctor has been previously contacted. According to them, it could potentially stop a life-threatening cardiac event from occurring — thereby saving a life.

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