When was your last eye exam? Many of us avoid it like the plaque, resistant to the idea of having our eyes dilated blinding us for what seems like an eternity (usually lasts 3-6 hours, sometimes longer). But what if your eyes could see into the future? New research suggests that a retinal eye exam may reveal if you’re at risk for having a stroke in the future.
In a study reported in the American Heart Association journal, Hypertension, researchers believe retinal imaging may someday help assess if you’re more likely to develop a stroke – the nation’s #4 killer and leading cause of disability.
“The retina provides information on the status of blood vessels in the brain,” said Mohammad Kamran Ikram, M.D., Ph.D., lead author of the study and assistant professor in the Singapore Eye Research Institute, the Department of Ophthalmology and Memory Aging & Cognition Centre, at the National University of Singapore. “Retinal imaging is a non-invasive and cheap way of examining the blood vessels of the retina.”
Worldwide, high blood pressure is the single most important risk factor for stroke. However, it’s still not possible to predict which high blood pressure patients are most likely to develop a stroke.
In this study researchers tracked a total of 2907 participants with high blood pressure and no history of stroke for an average of 13 years. At baseline, each had photographs taken of their retina, the light-sensitive layer of cells at the back of the eye ball. Damage to the retinal blood vessels attributed to their hypertension (aka high blood pressure), was called hypertensive retinopathy. These changes were graded and classified as none, mild, and moderate/severe. At the conclusion of the study 165 participants had strokes. Researchers adjusted for several stroke risk factors such as age, sex, race, cholesterol levels, blood sugar, body mass index, smoking and blood pressure readings. They found the risk of stroke was 35% higher in those with mild hypertensive retinopathy and 137% her in those with moderate/severe hypertensive retinopathy.
If you have high blood pressure, don’t be discouraged – in fact, this is an opportunity to be more diligent about adopting health lifestyles such as exercising, eating healthier foods and to stop smoking realizing that medications are not the only answer. Blood pressure management IS essential to warding off complications such as strokes and heart attacks. Although more studies are needed to validate this study’s findings, in the interim make sure you speak to your health care provider about your plan to stay healthy and decreasing your risk factors of having a stroke. And it might not hurt to add on an eye exam too.