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Published September 29, 2012, 11:35 PM

Bursack: Eye exams offer important window to general health

DEAR CAROL: My 62-year-old mother went to her optometrist for her yearly eye exam. During the exam, her doctor said she was developing cataracts that would eventually need to be removed, though not for awhile. That wasn’t a surprise. He also said she that she should see her primary doctor as soon as possible because he saw evidence of a heart-related problem.

By: Carol Bradley Bursack, INFORUM

DEAR CAROL: My 62-year-old mother went to her optometrist for her yearly eye exam. During the exam, her doctor said she was developing cataracts that would eventually need to be removed, though not for awhile. That wasn’t a surprise. He also said she that she should see her primary doctor as soon as possible because he saw evidence of a heart-related problem.

Mom is basically healthy and doesn’t go to the doctor regularly, but isn’t it out of line for an eye doctor to diagnose heart disease? – Karen

DEAR KAREN: First of all, I don’t think the optometrist was actually diagnosing heart disease.

I believe he was suggesting that your mom’s eyes show signs that she could have some heart-related problems and he apparently felt rather strongly that she should get her overall health checked out by her physician.

Many people are surprised at the number of diseases an optometrist or ophthalmologist can detect by conducting a routine eye exam. However, the eyes, long considered by poets to be the “window to the soul” can, according to the medical community, also provide a window to our overall health.

Heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, cancerous tumors, rheumatoid arthritis and other diseases may be first noted by an eye doctor. Not long ago, a German study focused on the possibility of optometrists accurately detecting Alzheimer’s disease. The study found that the eyes can reveal very early signs of developing Alzheimer’s, and that optometrists could be trained to detect these changes.

As your mother found out, the aging process often brings cataracts. A cataract is a clouding of the lens in the eye which affects vision. According to the National Eye Institute, National Institutes on Aging, the lens is a clear part of the eye that helps to focus light, or an image, on the retina. The retina is the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye. In a normal eye, light passes through the transparent lens to the retina. Once it reaches the retina, light is changed into nerve signals that are sent to the brain. The lens must be clear for the retina to receive a sharp image. If the lens is cloudy from a cataract, the image you see will be blurred.

Your mother has good reasons to continue with her annual eye exams. She also would be wise to heed her optometrist’s advice and see her primary doctor for a thorough physical. She may only have a small issue with her cardiovascular system now, but it should be addressed.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com.

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