The eyes are a rarely considered player in cardiovascular events. However, new study results suggest that the blood vessels in the back of the eye could provide helpful insights.
The current study represents the most comprehensive research approach to date on the link between the eye and cardiovascular diseases. The research team found that the blood vessels in the back of the eye are affected by stiffened arteries and elevated blood pressure.
Professor Alicia Rudnicka, lead study author from St. George's University in London, explained: "If what happens in the rest of the body is reflected in the eyes, the morphology of the eye should not only be an additional tool in research but should find its way into clinical application as quickly as possible".
Data from almost 55,000 people of middle and older age from the UK Biobank formed the basis for the current research. In total, the team had access to 3.5 million blood vessel sections.
An automated program examined digital images of the retinal blood vessels of all study participants. This provided the team with measurements regarding the diameter and curvature of blood vessels.
The analysis showed that greater curvature of the ocular arteries was associated with higher pulse pressure, higher average arterial pressure during a heartbeat and higher systolic blood pressure. In addition, the researchers identified a correlation between the stiffness of arterial walls and the narrowing of retinal blood vessels.
Professor Rudnicka explained: "None of these effects affect vision, but the blood vessels in the back of the eye could give a quick impression of whether a patient is on the path to cardiovascular disease". She added: "This means that we already have an important piece of the puzzle. If we are able to compare retinal blood vessel measurements with the later development of patients, we will be able to find out whether the changes in the blood vessels occurred before the cardiovascular event and provide clear predictions of the onset of cardiovascular disease."
Tapp EJ et al, Associations of Retinal Microvascular Diameters and Tortuosity With Blood Pressure and Arterial Stiffness. Hypertension 2019; DOI:https://doi.org/10.1161/HYPERTENSIONAHA.119.13752