Got 20/20 vision? You still need a yearly eye exam. It can reveal far more than just eye problems and can forewarn of major diseases such as cancer and heart disease.
Dr. Jacqueline Busingye, assistant professor of ophthalmology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, explains how eyes offer a glimpse into what’s going on in the rest of your body.
The big picture
“In an eye exam, we can see the blood vessels and the optic nerve. It’s the only nerve in the body we can actually see,” says Busingye. “Nerve abnormalities tell us there’s a possibility of a brain tumor, or other tumors. There are lots of tiny blood vessels that allow us to see the potential for disease in other parts of the body. Sometimes we find bleeding in the back of the eye, or we see inflammation. Then we work out the underlying cause.”
At the beginning of the exam, the first thing the doctor does is rule out the presence of infectious diseases, such as Lyme or syphilis, or inflammatory issues, such as autoimmune disorders.
Then comes the check for other possible illnesses. Not everything can be detected in an eye exam, but those that can include diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and thyroid disease. High blood pressure, for example, can cause bleeding or malformations in the eye’s blood vessels. Plaque from high cholesterol can damage the eye’s tiny blood vessels before affecting larger arteries.
Save your eyesight
Detecting, diagnosing and treating conditions not only gets them under control, but can save eye damage from becoming permanent. “Unfortunately, we take our vision for granted until we wake up and can’t see so well,” says Busingye. “It’s not until it’s threatened that people do something and by then, if damage has occurred, it’s too late.”
Find the right expert
Need a regular checkup? Book a visit with an optometrist. “Ophthalmologists are medical doctors,” Busingye says. “Most people see an optometrist for issues with refractive errors, such as those that call for glasses or contact lenses. However, for patients with eye disorders or health problems, the fact that ophthalmologists are medical doctors with clinical and surgical training means they are able to give a higher level of care.”