Retinopathy Associated with Increased Risk of Heart Disease

Your eyes may be not only windows to your soul… but also to your heart as well. Researchers have learned that a common eye disorder called retinopathy carries with it an increased risk of heart disease. In people with diabetes, retinopathy is a complication of the disease, but in others, it can be caused by elevated blood pressure and other conditions. Retinopathy develops when the blood vessels in the light-sensitive inner layer in the back of the eye are damaged. The presence of these damaged vessels indicates a likelihood that blood vessels elsewhere in the body, including the heart, may be similarly impaired, notes researcher Jie Jin Wang, PhD, an associate professor and senior research fellow at the Centre for Vision Research at the University of Sydney. For people with mild or even moderate cases of retinopathy, there may be no symptoms at all. In people with diabetes, severe cases of retinopathy can lead to blindness. Symptoms of the condition include blurred vision, floaters and shadows.


In an Australian study, called the Blue Mountains Eye Study, Dr. Wang, Paul Mitchell, MD, PhD, and their team analyzed retinal photographs of nearly 3,000 people over the age of 49 — 199 with type 2 diabetes and 2,768 diabetes-free. They assessed the photos for retinopathy lesions, such as tiny hemorrhages and microaneurysms. Retinopathy was detected in 28.6 percent of people with diabetes and 9.7 percent of those without diabetes.

After 12 years, researchers found that…

  • People who had neither diabetes nor retinopathy experienced an 11 percent death rate from coronary heart disease.
  • Those with diabetes but no retinopathy had a 14.8 percent chance of dying from coronary heart disease.
  • People with retinopathy but no diabetes experienced a 16.8 percent death rate from coronary heart disease.
  • People with both diabetes and retinopathy had a 19.3 percent chance of dying from coronary heart disease.

These findings were published in the Aug. 12, 2008, online issue of the journal Heart.


Though the link between diabetes and heart disease is long established, it seems clear that retinopathy should be considered to pose a risk as well. The study indicates that retinopathy may be an independent warning sign of heart disease — important information if you are 50 and over and have retinopathy, even if you do not have diabetes.

I asked Daily Health News contributing medical editor Andrew L. Rubman, ND, what measures might help prevent retinopathy. His suggestions include avoiding pro-inflammatory foods (processed, fried, and those with trans fats, high sugar and/or high-gluten grain), while emphasizing antioxidant-rich foods and supplements (fresh fruits, berries, and vegetables, vitamins A, C, D, and E, omega-3 fatty acids from fish, minerals such as zinc and selenium). Also important, in his view, are high-quality, well-digested proteins, particularly those with sulfur-containing amino acids such as egg yolks and supplements with bio-available organic sulfur compounds, such as MSM, methylsulfonylmethane.

Another preventive measure: Get an eye exam as you would a regular medical check-up. This can be done with an annual visit to an optometrist, who will refer you to an ophthalmologist if he/she detects any emerging problems.

Even more important, if you are diagnosed with retinopathy, undergo a thorough cardiovascular risk assessment. Ask your doctor how to best control risk factors for heart disease and make sure that you have regular tests as appropriate — for example, EKGs or stress tests — to monitor your risk for potential heart disease.