HEALTHY YOU

Eyes give a peek into overall health

Exams can turn up diabetes, tumors, heart problems

Ophthalmology. Examination With Magnifying Glass (Adobe Stock)
Ophthalmology. Examination With Magnifying Glass (Adobe Stock)

An eye exam does more than examine the health of your eyes.

“We can tell a lot of things about your health through your eyes. It’s the only direct view into the nervous system,” said Dr. Elizabeth Gauger, an ophthalmologist at Iowa Eye Center in Cedar Rapids.

By examining the optic nerve and the blood vessels in the back of the eyes, Gauger can see signs of high blood pressure, diabetes and sometimes even signs that indicate the presence of a brain tumor. One of the most common conditions she diagnoses and treats is diabetic retinopathy, a condition that occurs

when high blood sugar levels damage blood vessels in the retina.

New treatments, including injections, are available to help prevent vision loss for patients with the condition, but Gauger said it’s essential to come in for an exam before you start experiencing symptoms.

“Screening is important because a lot of these conditions are silent,” she said. “If you show signs of diabetes, I can provide treatments to prevent vision loss, but I have to know it’s happening.”

Gauger also looks for characteristic patterns of vision loss that might signal a problem with a patient’s overall health.

“Certain patterns of vision loss can lead us to know what’s going on in the brain,” she said. “For example, missing peripheral vision might show us where a stroke has occurred.”

Signs of swelling in the optic nerve can indicate a variety of issues that cause increased pressure in the skull, including brain tumors.

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Imaging techniques to look for these conditions have improved in recent years, but Gauger said there’s currently no technology that replaces an exam.

“There’s no substitution for dilation and having me look back there with my own eyes.”

Ryan Berger, an optometrist at Cedar Rapids Eye Care, agrees about the improvements in imaging technology.

“We have software that can run an analysis on the functioning of cells in the back of the eye to look for signs of glaucoma or other neurodegenerative diseases,” he said.

Still, for some conditions, no perfect parameters exist to make a definitive diagnosis, especially at the beginning stages.

For this reason, Berger monitors changes in patients’ scans from year to year.

“It’s important to get that baseline,” he said. “There are no pain receptors in the back of the eye, so you may not notice changes, such as bleeding or pressure.”

The eye is considered an “end organ,” meaning it reflects changes that started somewhere else in the body.

“If you see it in the eyes, it’s going on in the rest of the body,” Berger said.

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Both Berger and Gauger have advice for keeping your eyes healthy, which sounds a lot like advice for keeping your body healthy.

“Eat a balanced diet with colorful vegetables and use UV protection,” Berger said.

Don’t smoke because it can damage the tiny blood vessels in the eye, Gauger said.

Vision loss, Gauger added, is something a lot of patients worry about, but it’s also something they can help prevent.

“It’s a lot of people’s greatest fear,” she said. “The lifestyle choices you make today can affect your vision in the future.”

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