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6 surprising things your eyes reveal about your health

Your eyes can offer clues about health problems before other symptoms pop up. Find out what your eye doctor can learn about your heart, blood sugar and more.

Stacy Colino By Stacey Colino

Don’t need glasses or contacts to see clearly? Then you might not think a yearly trip to the eye doctor is worth your time. But in fact, such a visit can tell you a lot more about your health than just how your eyes are doing.

“It has to do with location, location, location,” explains Andrew Iwach, MD. He’s a clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology and executive director of the Glaucoma Center of San Francisco. “Where the eyes are located, and where the pathways are in the brain, give us insight into what’s happening in the body. The eyes are the only part of the body where we can see bare arteries, veins and nerves without making an incision.”

As a result, an eye exam can detect a serious health condition before symptoms start to show. Or it can signal that a disease you know you have is getting worse and needs more care. “We’re physicians, so when we do an eye [exam], we leverage the medical school training we had to gather medical information,” Dr. Iwach says. (Note that ophthalmologists are medical doctors. Optometrists are not, but they often spot other health problems too.)  

Here’s a list of some of the health problems your eye doctor can help find that might surprise you.

High blood pressure: During your exam, your doctor may use eyedrops to help widen your pupil. This allows your doctor to have a better view of the back of the eye. If your doctor sees changes in the small blood vessels — such as an abnormal appearance or slight bleeding — that may point to high blood pressure, Dr. Iwach says.1

Diabetes: If you have diabetes, an eye doctor may notice the blood vessels in the eyes are leaking into the retina. This is a condition called diabetic retinopathy.1,2 It’s a term for diabetes-related eye problems that affect the retina. (That’s the part of the eye that takes in light so you can see.3) At first, it may cause no symptoms at all, or just slight blurriness. But over time, it can lead to blindness. Treating the eyes and the diabetes can help save your vision.

High cholesterol: The clear layer that covers your eye — the cornea — may have cholesterol deposits. There’s no need to worry if your eye doctor detects these deposits. And there’s no need for treatment.4 But it can be a sign that you need to visit your primary care doctor. Talk with them about your cholesterol levels and what you can do to protect your heart.

Autoimmune diseases: Conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and lupus can cause inflammation in the body. That includes various parts of the eye.1 Inflammation here may tip off your eye doctor that you should visit a rheumatologist. That’s a doctor who specializes in autoimmune issues.

Some cancers: Systemic cancers — those that grow throughout the body — can spread to the eye, Dr. Iwach says. Some can alter the normal eye structures. This, in turn, might uncover an undetected cancer, Dr. Iwach explains. “And skin cancer can occur near the eyes because they get a lot of UV radiation.” These are all things your doctor will look for in an eye exam.

Aneurysm: “If the pupils are not functioning properly, that could signal an undetected aneurism,” Dr. Iwach says. An aneurysm is a weak spot in the wall of an artery. It looks like a little balloon. This bulge can press on nearby tissue and nerves, causing one of the pupils to be larger. Other eye signs include a drooping eyelid, pain above or behind the eye or double vision. If you notice any of these yourself, call your doctor right away. It could mean you have an aneurysm or other serious condition that could be deadly.5,6

If your eye doctor sees any of these worrying changes, they may suggest seeing a specialist, Dr. Iwach says. For instance, an internist, a neurologist or a rheumatologist.

When you take charge of your eye health, you can take charge of your health overall. So go ahead and schedule your exam today.


1Mukamal R. American Academy of Ophthalmology. 20 surprising health problems an eye exam can catch. January 16, 2020. Accessed on July 1, 2021.

2Cleveland Clinic. Your eyes: a window to your health. July 6, 2020. Accessed on July 1, 2021.

3Mayo Clinic. Diabetic retinopathy. June 24, 2021. Accessed on July 1, 2021.

4Lopez-Jimenez F. Mayo Clinic. Arcus senilis: a sign of cholesterol? May 20, 2021. Accessed on July 1, 2021.

5Mayo Clinic. Brain aneurysm. August 9, 2019. Accessed on July 1, 2021.

6Mayo Clinic. The hidden dangers of brain aneurysm. Accessed on July 1, 2021.


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