Our eyes do more than just let us see. They give insight into our overall health. In fact, a simple vision test can reveal heart problems you may not even be aware of.

How is this possible? It's all about blood vessels. 

The arrangement of blood vessels at the back of your eye (retina vasculature) has a strong connection to your heart. That means problems with your retina vasculature can directly link to issues we see in other areas like cholesterol levels and high blood pressure, among others.

If you have cardiovascular health problems or are at risk for these conditions, your eyes may reveal this information before any other symptoms present themselves.

Let's explore this in more detail.

How Your Eyes & Heart Are Linked

Your heart is the center of your circulatory system, which pumps blood through your body with each beat. Your eye is a part of your visual system, which gathers information about your surroundings and transmits it to your brain.

The two organs are connected by a series of arteries and veins that supply blood to the back of the eye — the retina vasculature. That means medical problems in this region are often markers for issues elsewhere in our bodies, including cardiovascular disease. 

In fact, if you have heart disease, your eyes could be the first place to show it. 

Eye Conditions & What They Tell You

The eyes are often called the window to the soul and for a good reason. They can tell us a lot about our health and well-being. Some eye conditions are signs of underlying health issues, such as heart disease or high blood pressure.

To help you better understand what your eyes can tell you about your heart health, here are some eye conditions and what they might mean:

Conditions That Show Artery Issues

High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes are major risk factors for heart disease. They cause artery blockage, narrowing, and hardening. This condition is known as atherosclerosis.

Because these factors affect the blood vessels that supply blood to the heart, they can also affect your eyes. 

The following eye conditions are linked with these vascular diseases:

Retinal Artery Occlusions

Retinal artery occlusions occur when an artery in the retina becomes blocked by a clot. This can lead to sudden vision loss and potentially permanent blindness if not treated quickly. This condition is caused by atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of arteries) and affects people over age 50.

The most common symptoms of RAOs include a sudden onset of vision loss and flashes of light in the affected eye. It's important to get this checked out right away because the condition can cause permanent vision loss if not diagnosed and treated early. 

Amaurosis Fugax

Amaurosis fugax is a temporary loss of vision in one eye. It can last from a few seconds to several minutes, and the affected eye may feel like it's covered with a dark curtain. 

This condition is caused by a temporary blockage of blood flow to the retina. The underlying cause is usually a clot or spasm in an artery supplying blood to your eye, but it can sometimes be due to other conditions, such as migraine headaches and high blood pressure.

However, if amaurosis fugax occurs repeatedly or more than once per year, something may be wrong with your heart or cardiovascular system.

The condition often goes away without treatment, but if it happens more frequently or lasts longer than 30 minutes, you should see your doctor immediately. This could be a sign of an underlying serious problem with your heart or blood vessels.

Xanthelasma

Xanthelasma is a condition in which small yellowish bumps form on the eyelids around the inner corners of your eyes. It happens when fat deposits collect under the skin of your eyelids.

These deposits are usually between the eyelid and the eye or below the lower eyelid. They can be found anywhere along the edge of the eyelids, but they most often appear on the inner corner of your eyes and lower eyelids. Some people with xanthelasma don’t even know their eyes are affected by this condition until they see it in their mirror or when someone else points it out to them. 

Others might experience itching and irritation from these bumps, especially if one becomes infected or ruptures (breaks open).

Xanthelasma isn’t dangerous on its own. However, it can be a sign of high cholesterol levels and other health problems, such as diabetes or kidney disease, that need treatment.

Retinal Vein Occlusions 

This condition obstructs the veins that carry blood from the retina to the brain. It can cause sudden temporary vision loss, often in one eye only. 

Retinal vein occlusion is usually caused by plaque buildup on the walls of arteries supplying blood to your retina, which can lead to a clot forming and blocking the vein. The condition is more common in older people, but it can happen at any age.

Studies suggest that people with this condition have a greater risk of heart attack or stroke than those without it. If they don't resolve independently, you may need treatment with medications or laser therapy to break up or dissolve the clot.

Arcus Senilis or Corneal Arcus

Arcus senilis, also called corneal arcus, is the most common eye condition that indicates heart disease. This condition looks like an arc-shaped ring on the cornea (the clear front part of the eye) that develops with age. It is caused by deposits of cholesterol, calcium, or other fatty substances in the cornea. 

The disease is often found in older people and appears as either a single ring or several rings around the cornea's periphery. There may be no symptoms associated with this condition, but it can affect vision if it grows large enough. 

If you have coronary heart disease, high cholesterol levels, or a family history of coronary heart disease, you may be at increased risk for developing this condition.

Eye Conditions That Show Hypertension

Hypertension is a condition in which blood pressure rises to dangerous levels. It can lead to heart attack, stroke, and other serious health problems. Many eye conditions can be a sign of high blood pressure. 

Here are some of the most common ones:

Hypertensive Optic Neuropathy

Hypertensive optic neuropathy (HON), also known as hypertensive retinopathy, is an eye condition that often develops in people with high blood pressure. It’s caused by damage to the optic nerve, which connects the eye to the brain. 

This damage can cause blurred vision and blind spots in your field of vision. HON typically affects older adults with high blood pressure who have other risk factors for cardiovascular diseases, such as diabetes or obesity.

If you have this condition, your doctor will want to treat your hypertension first to avoid further damage to your optic nerve.

Hypertensive Retinopathy

Hypertensive retinopathy is a blood vessel disease of the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye. It occurs in patients with high blood pressure who may or may not have other risk factors for cardiovascular disease. 

Hypertensive retinopathy occurs when the force of blood flow against the walls of your blood vessels increases because your heart pumps harder to push blood through your body. Over time, this increased force may damage the small vessels in your retina and cause them to leak fluid or burst (hemorrhage).

A hemorrhage causes a sudden decrease in vision. If left untreated, these small bleeds can cause scarring in or around the macula (a part of the retina responsible for central vision), which may lead to permanent vision loss.

Hypertensive Chorioretinopathy or Choroidopathy

Hypertensive chorioretinopathy is a chronic, slowly progressive eye disease that affects the blood vessels of the retina and choroid. It is also known as hypertensive retinopathy.

The condition is common in older adults and affects both eyes. It can cause double vision, swelling, headaches, and pressure on the optic nerve. This can lead to permanent vision loss if not treated.

If you have these symptoms, see an eye doctor immediately because it could indicate high blood pressure or other serious health problems, such as diabetes or kidney disease.

Heart Disease & the Eye

Eye doctors can use the retina to check for signs of heart disease. If the retina does not receive enough blood, ischemia can result. This condition often occurs in people with heart disease and results in cell death.

An OCT scan can detect scars on the retina, which are a sign that some of its cells have died. By examining the retina for dead cells, an eye doctor can detect whether a patient is at risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

Make sure you're seeing an ophthalmologist regularly, so they can check for any signs of eye damage caused by heart disease.

Leaky Aortic Heart Valve & the Eye

Leaky aortic heart valve (LAHV) is a condition in which the aortic valve, located between the left ventricle and the aorta, doesn't close properly after each heartbeat. This problem leads to blood leaking backward into the left atrium and eventually being pumped out into the rest of the body.

People with a leaky aortic heart valve may be monitored over time to see if the condition is worsening or improving, but there are also several ways of identifying it. The most obvious symptoms come from the constant dilation and contraction of the pupils. 

When a patient has a leaky aortic valve, the dilation becomes more pronounced due to increased pressure in the head from extra blood flow into the brain. The extra blood flow causes the pupils to constrict in sync with each heartbeat.

Eye Conditions That Can Reveal Potential Problems

Diabetes and heart disease are two conditions that several eye conditions can reveal. These eye conditions have been linked to diabetes or other precursors to heart issues:

Cataracts

If you notice that your vision is blurry, cloudy, or distorted, you may have cataracts. This clouding of the eye’s lens can cause blurred vision and make it difficult for you to read or drive.

This condition is linked with inflammation in the lens of your eye and a reduction in vitamin A in your body. In people with diabetes, cataracts form more quickly. If you develop cataracts earlier than expected in life or if they progress quickly, your doctor may screen you for diabetes. 

Glaucoma

Glaucoma is another condition that can cause vision loss if left untreated. It's characterized by increased pressure inside your eye, which causes damage to your optic nerve and leads to blindness if left untreated (though there are treatments available). 

Glaucoma can also be a sign of diabetes or high blood pressure. In fact, if you have diabetes, you have double the chances of developing glaucoma

It's important to get an eye exam regularly if you have either condition and experience symptoms such as blurred vision and headaches.

Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy occurs when high blood sugar damages the retina and causes bleeding or swelling in the back of your eye. The most common symptoms are blurry vision and floaters (dark spots that float across your field of vision). 

If you have diabetes and notice these symptoms, call your doctor immediately. They could be signs of more serious problems like retinal detachment or stroke.

Color Blindness

Color blindness is a common condition, and it's often a symptom of diabetes. When your body can't properly produce insulin, glucose can't get into your cells, which means it also can't get into the retina. In this case, color blindness is actually a sign that your body isn't getting enough energy to keep up with its demands.

Dry Eyes

Dry eye syndrome is a common condition that affects 6.8 percent of the U.S adult population. That is approximately 16.4 million people. 

It occurs when the eye doesn't produce enough tears to keep it moist and comfortable. This disease can cause a burning sensation, sensitivity to light, itching or stinging, and redness in or around the eye.

Dry eyes are linked to diabetes because people with diabetes have higher blood sugar levels than normal. When blood sugar levels are high, it can harm the eyes’ nerves. This damage can mean the eyes don’t produce sufficient tears, resulting in dry eyes.

Prevention of Eye & Heart Health Issues

It's never too early to start taking steps toward a healthier heart. Here are some tips for keeping both your eyes and your heart healthy:

1. Get Regular Eye Exams

Regular eye exams can help detect serious eye problems that may indicate heart disease. Your doctor or optometrist will look for signs of glaucoma, macular degeneration, and cataracts, which are linked to cardiovascular disease.

2. Exercise Regularly

Regular exercise helps lower blood pressure and cholesterol, which can protect against heart attack and stroke. Being active also increases blood flow through your body, improving how well oxygen and nutrients reach your retina.

3. Understand Your Family History

If you have a family history of heart disease or diabetes, you must understand what that means for your health. If there are any lifestyle changes you can make to reduce those risks, take them. This could help prevent future strokes and reduce complications from diabetes down the road.

4. Eat Healthy Food for Your Heart & Eye Health

Diets rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains help keep your heart healthy by reducing cholesterol levels and blood pressure. They also help to keep your eyes healthy by providing antioxidants like vitamins A and C, which protect against macular degeneration (the leading cause of blindness).

5. Cut Down on Smoking

Smoking increases the risk of many conditions that affect the heart, lungs, skin, and blood vessels. It also increases the risk of cataracts (lens clouding) and age-related macular degeneration (AMD). 

If you smoke cigarettes or use other tobacco products, talk to your doctor about ways you can quit.

References

Know Your Risk for Heart Disease. (December 2019). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What Is Atherosclerosis? (March 2022). National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Central Retinal Artery Occlusion. (September 2021). StatPearls

Amaurosis Fugax (Transient Vision Loss). (January 2022). American Academy of Ophthalmology.

What Is Xanthelasma? (May 2021). American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Central Retinal Vein Occlusion. (May 2022). StatPearls.

What Is Arcus Senilis? (April 2019). The American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Hypertensive Retinopathy. (June 2022). American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Optical Coherence Tomography: A Guide to Interpretation of Common Macular Diseases. (January 2018). Indian Journal of Ophthalmology.

Landolfi’s Sign. (October 2019). The New England Journal of Medicine.

The Association Between Dietary Vitamin A and C Intakes and Cataract. (July 2020). Clinical Nutrition Research.

What Is Glaucoma? Glaucoma Research Foundation.

Curious About Cataracts? American Diabetes Association.

Diabetic Eye Disease. (May 2017). National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

How Color Blindness is Linked to Type 2 Diabetes. (November 2019). Health Hub.

Prevalence of Diagnosed Dry Eye Disease in the United States Among Adults Aged 18 Years and Older. (July 2017). American Journal of Ophthalmology

Dry Eye Syndrome in Patients With Diabetes Mellitus: Prevalence, Etiology, and Clinical Characteristics. (April 2016). Journal of Ophthalmology.

Nutrients for Prevention of Macular Degeneration and Eye-Related Diseases. (April 2019). Antioxidants.

Knowledge About the Relationship Between Smoking and Blindness in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia: Results from the International Tobacco Control Four-Country Project. (May 2011). Optometry.

The information provided on this page should not be used in place of information provided by a doctor or specialist. To learn more, read our Privacy Policy and Editorial Policy pages.