Simple Eye Test Could Detect Early Signs of Heart Disease

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10/04/2021

Photo: Daily Mail

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A simple eye test could detect a person's risk of heart disease, a study suggests.  

Researchers found scans of patients' retinas picked up on signs of poor blood flow to their eyes, and this could be used as a sign of cardiovascular problems.

Heart disease can often lead to inadequate circulation and may cause cells in the retina, the part of the eye that converts light into electrical signals for the brain, to die, and leave a permanent mark.

Lead author of the study Dr. Mathieu Bakhoum, a retinal surgeon from the University of California San Diego Health, hopes retinal ischemia could help to spot patients at risk of heart disease.

Medics at the university's health clinic now consider referring patients straight to a cardiologist if ischemia is identified during a scan. 

The non-invasive scan takes just seconds and is a recommended part of routine tests by an optician to diagnose a wide range of conditions, such as glaucoma or macular hole.

Heart disease is not routinely screened for on the NHS and Britons normally aren't checked or diagnosed until they start suffering symptoms.  

Strokes — often the first sign of underlying disease, alongside heart attacks — are a medical emergency, and can occur in anyone. Having high blood pressure and not exercising enough can increase the risk. 

Figures suggest there are 200,000 hospital visits because of heart attacks in the UK each year, while there are around 800,000 annually in the US. 

"The eyes are a window into our health, and many diseases can manifest in the eye; cardiovascular disease is no exception," Dr. Bakhoum said.

'Ischemia, which is decreased blood flow caused by heart disease, can lead to inadequate blood flow to the eye and may cause cells in the retina to die, leaving behind a permanent mark.

'We termed this mark "retinal ischemic perivascular lesions", or RIPLs, and sought to determine if this finding could serve as a biomarker for cardiovascular disease.' 

To test their theory, the researchers examined the records of 13,940 patients who received a retinal scan at UC San Diego Health between July 2014 and July 2019.

From this group, they identified 84 people who had heart disease and 74 people without disease who served as the experiment's control group. 

Of the 84 people with heart disease, 58 had coronary heart disease, where blood supply is blocked by a build-up of fatty substances in the coronary arteries.

The remaining 26 people in this group had had a stroke when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off.  

Examining the scans of these groups, the researchers found more RIPLs in the eyes of individuals with heart disease.

Another author in the study, cardiologist, Dr. Anthony DeMaria, said he hopes the findings could provide a new way of examining patients' risk of heart disease.

"The retina, in particular, provides important evidence of the adverse effects of cardiovascular issues, such as high blood pressure," he said. 

'It’s my hope that the presence of RIPLs in the eye will serve as a marker for cardiovascular disease when patients are undergoing assessment of risk factors for heart disease, or when patients are undergoing evaluation for the suspected presence of heart disease.'

This could then be used as an basis to start heart disease preventative measures, potentially reducing the number of heart attacks or strokes, Dr. DeMaria added. 

The team's findings were published in EClincalMedicine.

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