Our eyes are often known as the “window to the soul” – but a new study finds they could also be a window into something else: stroke risk.
A study published in the Hypertension journal examined whether hypertensive retinopathy can predict a long-term risk of stroke in people with hypertension. Here’s what that means in plain English. Hypertensive retinopathy is a condition caused by high blood pressure, in which the blood vessels in the back of your eye (or retina) become damaged. And even though looking into the back of your eye might seem extreme, retinal imaging is actually very easy, cheap and non-invasive. The researchers of this study set out to see if this very simple eye test could predict a person’s stroke risk in the long-term. And what they found was a cautious yes.
They followed 2,907 people with hypertension, but no previous incidence of stroke. At the beginning of the study, they performed the retinal imaging test to determine who had hypertensive retinopathy. They then followed these participants for 13 years.
In those 13 years, 146 participants had a blood-clot-related stroke, and 15 had a brain-bleed-related stroke. So what does that mean, exactly? After controlling for other risk factors such as age, sex, smoking, BMI, etc., the researchers found that participants who had a mild case of hypertensive retinopathy at the beginning of the study had a 35% higher risk of stroke. And those with moderate to severe cases? They had a 137% higher risk of stroke. That includes participants who were on medication and had their blood pressure controlled.
So does this mean our stroke risk will start being assessed through eye exams? Not quite. Researchers say it’s still too soon to tell, and more studies need to be done. But if this is found to be successful, it could be a new tool in predicting stroke risk and early prevention.