When’s the last time you had your eyes checked? We’re not talking about a quick vision test—we’re talking about a comprehensive eye exam performed by an optometrist. You don’t just need an eye exam when you find yourself straining to see presentations at work. You need these exams even if you have 20/20 vision: they can reveal hidden health problems like diabetes, hypertension and cancer.
How? These conditions can show up as eye or vision problems or appear as retinal changes during an eye examination.
Some people with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes don’t experience early symptoms, so they remain undiagnosed. However, diabetes can manifest as damage to the small blood vessels in the retina (diabetic retinopathy), optic nerve damage (glaucoma) and the lens of the eye becoming opaque (early cataracts), which can all be caught through eye exams.
Untreated, diabetes can lead to vision loss, heart disease, stroke, nerve damage, kidney damage, hearing impairment and other serious problems.
Like diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure) may go undetected at first. However, it can affect the eye’s blood vessels—presenting as headache, vision problems or no symptoms in early stages—and shows up on a retinal scan as hypertensive retinopathy.
For patients without symptoms, this may be their initial diagnosis of hypertension. The longer the hypertension goes undetected and uncontrolled, the more severe the damage for eyes, as well as heart and kidneys, is likely to be.
A number of systemic autoimmune diseases that attack various organs in the body can also show up in the eye. In some cases, it’s the first or most obvious sign of the disease. For example:
- Chronic red eye may indicate rheumatoid arthritis..
- Yellowing of the whites of the eye may signal autoimmune hepatitis.
- Bulging eyeballs, light sensitivity or blurred or double vision may be symptoms of hyperthyroidism.
Early diagnosis through eye exams can lead to treatment and improved outcomes.
Melanoma of the eye is another disease that is often symptomless in its early stages. When it does present symptoms, they may include
- blurred vision or loss of vision
- a growing dark spot on the iris
- change in size or shape of the pupil
- change in position or movement of the eyeball
- bulging eye
Because many of these symptoms are also caused by aging or less serious conditions, it takes a professional to make the correct diagnosis.
So: are you due for a visit to the optometrist? Most adults need an eye exam every one to two years. People with rheumatic diseases or diabetes, of African or Hispanic descent or who have a family history of or existing eye disease need frequent visits. So do contact lens wearers, as poorly fitting lenses can chafe, scar and cause infections. And of course, if you’re experiencing any of the symptoms above, don’t delay. Get checked.