Are there links between Eye Health Conditions & General Health?

Our eyes give us unparalleled access to the world around us and few would argue the value of eyesight. But did you know their physical appearance can give insight into a person’s general health? Find that hard to believe? There are many eye health conditions that are linked to your general health.

8 Eye Health Conditions

1. Diabetes (Sugar and spice…but not all things nice) 

Did you know the eye is the only body part where blood vessels can be seen directly? High blood sugar levels over a long period of time can become noticeable as they cause the small vessels, known as ‘capillaries’, to become leaky. These haemorrhages can range in size from tiny pinpricks to large bleeds, where blood and other fluid escape into the ‘retina’ or camera film lining inside the eye.  

Fluid without blood cells is called ‘oedema’ and may be surrounded by a star-shaped pattern of yellow, fatty deposits called ‘hard exudates’.  Other signs include: ‘cotton wool’ spots (fluffy white spots) or in severe disease, the formation of new, very fine blood vessels that are extremely fragile and prone to haemorrhaging.  

The changes described above are more likely to occur if you’ve had diabetes for a long time, or if your blood sugar levels, blood pressure or cholesterol levels are too high. If your ophthalmologist or optometrist notices changes like these when conducting an exam, they will likely send you for a blood sugar test.

Retinal photo showing haemorrhages from diabetes

Retinal photo showing haemorrhages from diabetes

2. Optic Neuritis (ON… or Oh No!) 

Sudden blurring or loss of vision in one eye associated with pain on eye movement, maybe due to inflammation of the optic nerve, known as ‘optic neuritis’. Your eye specialist may observe either swelling of your optic nerve or detect colour vision problems or visual field changes on specific testing.  

There are a variety of causes of optic neuritis and further tests are usually needed to make a diagnosis. For young females who develop ON, there is an increased risk of developing multiple sclerosis at some point in the coming decade. This disease is where the white sheath around the nerves in many parts of the body deteriorates.  

3. Vision loss (attacks, stroke, cholesterol and more) 

What if you just lost part of your vision temporarily? If part of the vision in one eye becomes blurred or blackened, like a shadow or curtain, you should see your eye specialist or optometrist immediately.  This is called ‘amaurosis fugax’ and can indicate that you are having a ‘transient ischaemic attack’ (TIA) or ‘mini-stroke’ of the retina.  

This type of temporary vision loss is caused by a tiny piece of cholesterol called the ‘Hollenhorst plaque’ – fancy, right?  The plaque lodges in a blood vessel in your eye, blocking the supply of blood to a section of the retina, starving the nerves of vital oxygen and glucose.  

Interestingly, these little particles often originate from your carotid artery in your neck, where they break off and travel in the bloodstream all the way to your eye.  A stroke or ‘CVA’ occurs when these particles travel to a part of the brain, resulting in symptoms such as weakness of an arm or speech difficulties.  

If your eye specialist notices a Hollenhorst plaque during a routine examination, they will arrange an ultrasound scan of your carotid artery.  

Your eye health professional may also pick up elevated cholesterol levels by identifying a whitish or bluish ring on the front surface of your eye, just inside the coloured part. This is called ‘arcus senilis’. It can give the eye a milky appearance and many patients in fact mistake arcus senilis for cataracts.   

In patients over 40, arcus senilis is quite a normal finding; but for those under the age of 40 it can indicate elevated cholesterol levels.  If this is you, your eye health professional will refer you to your GP for further investigation. 

Arcus senilis

Arcus senilis

 4. Kayser-Fleischer Rings (sunflowers and yellow haloes) 

Instead of a white ‘arcus senilis’ ring lining the coloured part of the eye, some people have a yellow-brown ring instead.  This is actually a build-up of copper in the cornea (the shield at the front of your eye) and is known as a ‘Kayser-Fleischer’ ring.  More than likely, cataract change in the shape of a sunflower will also be present.

These changes are caused by a very rare condition called ‘Wilson Disease’, in which your body lacks the enzyme required to break down copper, resulting in high levels in body tissues.

Kayser-Fleischer Ring

Kayser-Fleischer Ring

Sunflower cataract

Sunflower cataract

 5. Angoid Streaks (sunshine and…chicken skin?!) 

Many people who see retinal photos comment that they look like the sun.  This is because they feature a large, yellow circle, the optic nerve.  In rare cases, the ‘sun’ actually looks like it has sun rays coming from it!  These rays are called angioid streaks and look like cracks radiating from the optic nerve.  

Angioid streaks can be associated with a disease called ‘Pseudoxanthoma Elasticum’, or ‘PXE’. This inherited condition results in weakening of the connective tissue of the body, leading to a variety of problems with digestion and cardiac function.  A common sign of PXE is a rough patch of ‘chicken skin’ on the neck! 

 6. Bitot’s Spot (Carrots to the rescue?)   

Everyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for the past hundred years has heard the old carrot fable. Is it really true that carrots give us better eyesight?  

The secret to the orange vegetable’s reputation is Vitamin A. When this is broken down, it activates cells that help you see at night.  Therefore, if you don’t have enough Vitamin A in your diet, your night vision may be poor.  Sadly though, even if you eat a rabbit-load of carrots, you won’t develop superhero night vision.   

One of the signs that might prompt your eye specialist to send you to a nutritionist is a scaly patch with a foamy appearance on the white part of your eye – called a ‘Bitot’s Spot’.   

Bitot’s Spot is related to a lack of adequate nutrition, an eye health condition directly related to general health. But malnutrition is a thing of the past in Australia, right? Confined to developing countries or scurvy-ridden sailors who ate only meat for weeks on end? Sadly not. In developed countries, Vitamin A deficiency occurs in association with eating disorders, alcoholism, coeliac disease and gastric shortening procedures. So keep up that Vitamin A and maintain a healthy diet as much as possible! 

 7. Uveitis (attack of the pink eye) 

Most patients who visit their eye specialist with a sore, red eye assume they will walk out with antibiotic drops and their eye will be white and bright again in no time.  And yet some patients end up with more than they bargained for… 

If you have an achy, red-eye with a small pupil, there is a possibility you may have uveitis.  Your eye specialist will search for inflammation inside your eye  Recurrent attacks of this can be associated with a very wide variety of underlying medical conditions including:  

  • Ankylosing Spondylitis – arthritis affecting the back, bowel issues 
  • Psoriatic Arthritis – arthritis, psoriasis 
  • Reiter’s Syndrome – arthritis affecting the knees, urinary issues. 

 8. Diplopia (is two always better than one?)

If you ever develop double vision, known as ‘diplopia’, do two things – stay off the road and see an eye specialist immediately! 

Double vision can occur in combination with the drooping of one, or both eyelids (ptosis).  One disease that can cause double vision as well as generalised muscle fatigue and breathing difficulties, is ‘myasthenia gravis’.    

When the muscles controlling the movement of your eyes get tired, they can no longer keep your eyes pointing in the same direction. Consequently, you experience double vision.  Additionally, when the muscles controlling your eyelids get tired, you can no longer keep your eyes open, leading to ptosis. 

As well as sending you for a blood test to diagnose this eye condition, your eye specialist may perform ‘The Ice Test’.  This simple, quick test is performed in the consulting room and involves placing an ice pack on your eyelids for five minutes.  If you have myasthenia gravis with ptosis, once the ice is removed from your eyelids, voila!  The muscles of your eyes will have been rejuvenated, and your drooping eyelid will spring back up into a normal position.

Right eye ptosis

Right eye ptosis

There are links between many eye health conditions and general health!

Want to know more about eye health conditions, or about the eye these conditions? Contact us on 07 3063 1600 or send us an email.