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Eye exams can detect early signs of disease hiding in your body

National Eye Exam Month focuses on importance of lifelong vision care

Eyes are the windows to the soul, as William Shakespeare once wrote. But they are also windows to your body’s overall health, and routine eye exams can help protect your body’s overall health – even save your life. That’s because eyes are often the place where early signs of serious medical conditions affecting your body can be detected.

August is National Eye Exam month, and its goal is to raise awareness of the importance of regular eye exams to keep eyes healthy and vision clear throughout every stage of a person’s life. “Routine eye exams are important for everyone to have, from birth through old age,“ said Peter Mueller, director, Blue Shield of California Specialty Benefits.  Mueller advises anyone in any health plan – whether it is individual and family, commercial, Medicare, or Medi-Cal – to carefully review whether the options offered include vision coverage.

“People are three times more likely to get their eyes examined than schedule a routine physical, so it’s likely that their first clue that they have a serious health condition comes at the eye doctor’s office. If they get such a diagnosis, it's vital that they follow it up with visits to their primary care physician and specialists for specific tests,” he said.

“Most people know it’s important to get routine vision checkups for their children and themselves, but they are startled to learn about the dozens of serious medical conditions that eye exams can uncover,” said Mueller. These include critical health issues such as  diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s. Here are a few examples of health conditions that a visit to an optometrist or ophthalmologist can help detect:

  • Diabetes: Diabetes affects the blood vessels and the back of the eye, and an eye exam reflects the disease’s presence in the body before the patient has any diabetes symptoms.
  • Cancer:  Cancers of blood, tissue, or skin such as melanoma, leukemia, and a brain tumor can be discovered during a thorough eye exam:
    • Melanoma – eye doctors look through to the pupil at the back of the eye; if there are dark spots seen, that can be a sign of early melanoma development.
    • Leukemia –the interior of the eye is affected by this disease and retinal bleeding can indicate leukemia.
    • Brain tumor – blurred vision and non-responsive pupils can be early signs of a brain tumor.
  • High blood pressure: By looking at a person’s retina and evaluating blood vessels, an eye doctor can determine if high blood pressure has caused any damage to the back of the eye. These changes can occur without symptoms.
  • Heart disease: This is one of many cardiovascular conditions, including blocked arteries, which can be detected with eye exams. Eye doctors may see evidence of plaque deposits inside the eye that separated from buildup on the carotid artery, which can cause a stroke if they reach the brain. Or, they may see signs of a decreased blood flow, called ischemia, which affects the retina, and is due to heart disease.

Importance of eye exams through life

“Eye exams should begin with babies and toddlers to ensure their eyes are developing normally and should continue through a child’s school years to ensure they thrive in academic environments and enjoy learning. School requires intense visual involvement with reading, writing, chalk boards, and computers, so it’s important that a child’s vision be perfect,” said Mueller. “As people age,” he explains, “adults should have yearly exams to detect changing vision needs and adjust prescriptions; seniors should be especially diligent with eye care so that conditions like macular degeneration, glaucoma, and cataracts can be detected and treated early on.”

“Vision insurance can make a real difference in people’s quality of life. It gives them access to a broad network of high quality, convenient optometrists and ophthalmologists, and the coverage they need for routine exams that can protect their eyes and their overall health throughout their life,” said Mueller.