Haims: Your eyes are much more than a window to your soul
Of the five senses, eyesight may very well be the most important. Although each sense provides distinctive information, our eyes provide the most information to our brain about ourselves and the environment around us.
Our eyes can reveal much more about us than the colloquial phrase “a window to our soul.” They also reveal mood, feelings, and emotions. Most importantly, our eyes can be an early-detection source for many health problems. Changes in our eyes don’t only signal concerns about vision, but also potential problems with the nervous system, diabetes, high-blood pressure, and heart disease.
According to a recent study from New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai, there is now conclusive data indicating an association between cardiovascular disease and an eye disease called age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
Although AMD is the leading cause of irreversible vision loss among adults 50 and older, macular degeneration can occur at earlier ages. While people rarely go blind from macular degeneration, it can cause severe loss of sight and be quite debilitating.
Macular degeneration is a progressive disease that affects a person’s central vision and the ability to see fine details. It occurs when there is damage to a critical part of the retina known as the macula. The macula is at the back of the eyeball and responsible for the ability to perceive color and sharp central vision. It translates light from the images we see into electrical impulses, which are sent via the optic nerve to the brain, which interprets them as sight.
I recently spoke to Dr. Jonathan Owens at Rocky Mountain Vision about macular degeneration and health concerns that the eyes may reveal. Our conversation was quite educational. While my intent of speaking with him was specifically to learn about the connection between AMD and the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, I was surprised to learn that the eyes also can foretell possible future concerns of the thyroid, liver, nervous system, diabetes, high-blood pressure, and heart disease. Our eyes can reveal so much about our overall health without even having to cut us open or stick us with a needle.
Typically, Dr. Owens explained, an eye exam begins with a refraction. This is where you sit in a chair and look through a device focusing on an eye chart 20 feet away. If you cannot see the letters like the big “E” on the eye chart clearly, the doctor can switch lenses of different strengths in front of the eye to see which provide better clarity.
He performs this assessment to see how light entering your eyes bends and where that light lands in relation to your retina. Doing so helps the doctor to determine if you have a refractive error in your vision causing you to be nearsighted or farsighted to determine what strength of prescription may be needed.
The test isn’t just to determine if someone needs glasses. It tells the doctor what a patient is capable of seeing. When refraction adjustments work and a person can clearly see the big “E” on the eye chart, the person may just need glasses. However, when adjustments do not help a person see the big “E” or smaller letters on the chart, the doctor needs to dig deeper and assess what’s going on. Now, the health level of the eye must be looked at — specifically, the retina and macula.
Often, the doctor will take a picture of the inside of the eye, where they can see the optic nerve and macula. With a very clear image of the eye, doctors can look for signs of a cataract or presence of metabolic waste in the macula called drusen.
The doctor may also notice the blood vessels, arteries, veins, and nerves in the eyes that are especially revealing. For example, diabetes concerns can be seen in hemorrhages in the retina; risk of heart disease and elevated cholesterol can be indicated by a white or gray ring around the edge of the cornea; and a swollen optic nerve can indicate elevated pressure inside the skull, which may be associated with headaches or a possible tumor.
These are just some of the numerous health concerns an ophthalmologist and optometrist can detect during an eye exam. Even if you have no symptoms of general health concerns, wouldn’t it be comforting to know that a simple eye exam could provide such insight into your well-being?
If you would like to visit a local group of optometrists, Rocky Mountain Vision group has offices in Vail, Basalt, and Denver.
Please look for my next column on this topic. Dr. Ownes and I will provide education specifically about age-related macular degeneration. Accounting for almost 9% of all blindness, it is the leading cause of blindness in the developing world.
Judson Haims is the owner of Visiting Angels Home Care in Eagle County. He is an advocate for our elderly and available to answer questions. His contact information is VisitingAngels.com/comtns and 970-328-5526.