Heart attack: The simple eye test that can determine your risk before the deadly event

Heart disease: Doctor explains how to reduce risk

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A research study found scans of patients’ retinas noticed failing blood flow to their eyes – a sign of cardiovascular issues which can bring on strokes and heart attacks. Poor heart conditions can bring on poor circulation of blood and can cause cells in the retina to die, leaving a terminal mark.

The main symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Chest pain – a sensation of pressure, tightness or squeezing in the centre of your chest
  • Pain in other parts of the body – it can feel as if the pain is travelling from your chest to your arms (usually the left arm is affected, but it can affect both arms), jaw, neck, back and tummy (abdomen)
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling sick (nausea) or being sick (vomiting)
  • An overwhelming sense of anxiety (similar to having a panic attack)
  • Coughing or wheezing.

Lead author doctor Mathieu Bakhoum, a retinal surgeon from the University of California San Diego Health, hopes retinal ischemia may aid spotting patients at risk of heart disease early.

Scientists at the university’s health clinic now hope to refer patients straight to a cardiologist if ischemia is identified during a scan.

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

The simple and easy scan takes just seconds and is a recommended part of routine tests by an optician to diagnose a wide range of eye conditions – and now potentially heart conditions.

Heart disease is not routinely screened for on the NHS and those living in the UK normally are not seen by a GP until they start developing symptoms – by then, it is often too late.

Having a high blood pressure and not exercising enough can increase the risk of a stroke and heart attack.

“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’, (RIPLs), and sought to determine if this finding could serve as a biomarker for cardiovascular disease.

”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 a 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.

Analysing the scans, the researchers found more RIPLs in the eyes of individuals with heart disease.

Co-author and cardiologist, doctor 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.”

It is 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.

”The study, published in EClincalMedicine concluded that this theory could then be used as a basis to start heart disease preventative measures, potentially reducing the number of heart attacks and strokes.

The novel study is the first of its kind to suggest their may be a link with simple eye tests and cardiovascular disease.

Figures suggest there are 200,000 hospital visits because of heart attacks in the UK each year.

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