Your Eyes Can Indicate If You Have High Blood Pressure, Also Known As Hypertension
An old proverb says, “the eyes are windows to the soul,” meaning that your eyes can reveal your emotions and even your thoughts at times. Similarly, the eyes can indicate whether a person has high blood pressure, also known as hypertension.
So, when optometrists perform eye exams, they are looking for more than just common vision conditions. They are also checking for warning signs of serious health conditions. Dr. William White, an optometrist with Baylor Scott & White Health in Temple, Texas, says he can see changes in the eyes of a patient with high blood pressure. For instance, damaged blood vessels in the eye are a sign of high blood pressure.
“The blood vessels in the retina can become a little stiffer and hardened,” Dr. White said in an interview with the American Heart Association. “They’ll push on each other and cross like two hoses in a confined space. When it gets really bad, we’ll see some of the blood vessels start to leak, we’ll see some hemorrhaging. And that can cause a whole range of vision issues.”
Hypertension poses a serious threat to a person’s sight. For instance, high blood pressure can cause:
- Hypertensive retinopathy, is a condition that occurs when high blood pressure damages blood vessels in the retina. This condition can cause blurry vision and eventual loss of sight.
- Choroidopathy, a buildup of fluid under the retina that can impair or distort vision.
- Optic neuropathy, a blood flow blockage that can kill nerve cells and cause vision loss.
Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of the arteries, which carry blood from the heart to other parts of the body. Blood pressure is measured with two numbers. High blood pressure is defined as having a blood pressure reading that is 130 or higher for the first number, called “systolic,” and 80 or higher for the second number, called “diastolic.” The systolic number represents the pressure in blood vessels when the heart contracts or beats, while the diastolic number represents the pressure in blood vessels when the heart rests between beats.
Hypertension develops over time, which is why it’s important to adopt a healthy lifestyle at a young age. The American Stroke Association reports that certain risk factors increase a person’s chance of developing high blood pressure. Their risk factors include:
- Cigarette smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke
- Being overweight or obese
- High cholesterol
- Physical inactivity
- Poor diet (high in sodium, low in potassium, and drinking too much alcohol)
Nearly half of adults in the United States, 47 percent, have hypertension, according to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The World Health Organization reports that nearly 1.3 billion adults aged 30-79 years worldwide have hypertension, and an estimated 46 percent are unaware that they have the condition. This is why hypertension is called the “silent killer” because people can have the condition and not even know it.
Many people are not aware that they have high blood pressure because they do not have routine medical exams or check their own blood pressure at a local pharmacy or at home with a home testing kit. Dr. Williams said some of his patients do not go to a medical doctor for a yearly checkup.
“They tell me, ‘Look, I just don’t like going to the doctor,’” he said. ”But their eyes are a problem, so they’ll come to us.”
While some of his patients see a medical doctor, Dr. Williams said they do not always follow medical advice or do not take their blood pressure medication. So, this leaves eye doctors on the “front lines of the battle” when it comes to detecting high blood pressure in its early stages.
“Sometimes people will say, ‘I’m just here to get my glasses. Why are you checking my blood pressure?'” he said. “We try to inform them about the unique opportunity we have to look at these blood vessels in the eye.”
Optometrists can use a slit-lamp, a specialized microscope with a bright light, or take a retinal photograph to get a detailed look at the different structures at the front, inside, and back of the eye.
To determine whether a patient has hypertension, eye doctors look for warning signs such as red areas of hemorrhaging in the eyes and fluid build-up under the retina. Optometrists can also measure the diameter of blood vessels in the eyes to predict patients who are at high risk of not only developing high blood pressure but cardiovascular disease.
High Blood Pressure Causes Other Health Problems
Besides eye problems, studies have shown that high blood pressure can increase the risk of other serious health conditions such as heart attacks, stroke, kidney disease, and vascular dementia.
One long-term study involved 2,900 people with high blood pressure whom researchers checked for hypertensive retinopathy. The participants were followed for an average of 13 years. During that time, 146 people had a stroke caused by a blood clot, and 15 had a stroke caused by bleeding in the brain. Researchers discovered that the risk of stroke was 35 percent higher in participants with mild hypertensive retinopathy and 137 percent higher in those with moderate or severe hypertensive retinopathy.
Since hypertension is not the only health condition that causes changes in the eye’s blood vessels, Dr. Williams encourages his patients to get a high blood pressure diagnosis or another health condition confirmed by a medical doctor.
“You’re not just a pair of eyeballs walking into an exam room,” Dr. Williams said. “We have to look at the entire person and the whole picture. These things can impact their lives significantly, and we have a responsibility for their overall health.”