Dangerous diseases revealed by your eyes

Eyes are the mirror of the soul, but also the mirror of health. Find out which chronic diseases an ophthalmologist can detect by examining your eyes, including diabetes, hypertension and cancer.

The importance of regular eye exams

You consider checking your blood pressure and weight. You get urine tests. But do you see an ophthalmologist or eye doctor on a regular basis?

This question can embarrass many patients if asked during their annual physical. “A comprehensive eye exam is about more than just vision,” says optometrist Mark Jacquot, vice president of eye care at LensCrafters. “It can provide information about your overall health, and can be an early indicator of chronic diseases such as diabetes, which can lead to diabetic retinopathy, a serious eye disease.”

In addition, the retina, a thin light-sensitive membrane at the back of the eye, is the only non-intrusive witness in the entire body that can give the ophthalmologist a detailed look at blood vessels and nerves. We consulted with eye specialists about the chronic diseases they could detect during a routine exam.


An eye exam can save your life. An ophthalmologist can detect a brain tumor or breast or lung cancer that has spread to the eye, says Joseph Pizzimenti, an optometrist and associate professor at the NSU College Optometry Eye Care Institute in Fort Lauderdale.

Some types of retinal bleeding are signs of leukemia. The ophthalmologist spots a brain tumor by changes in the patient’s field of vision. A malignant melanoma may appear in the back of the eye and only give the patient signs if the cancer is in the center of their field of vision, he says.


One of the first signs of type 2 diabetes is a slight bleed in the retina, which is a symptom of diabetic retinopathy. “I see patients with this symptom all the time who have not yet been diagnosed with diabetes,” says Joseph Pizzimenti.

If left untreated, this disease can lead to blindness, while treatment can cut the risk in half. Patients with diabetic retinopathy need to make lifestyle changes, eat healthier and maintain a healthy weight to prevent worsening.

High blood pressure

Vascular disorders, including weakened and narrowed arteries, can signal high blood pressure, says Dr. Jessica Ciralsky, an assistant professor of ophthalmology at Weill Cornell Medical School in New York City.

Studies have linked heart disease to narrowing of small blood vessels in the retina, reports an article in Hypertension magazine. This link is particularly tangible in people without traditional risk factors for heart disease.

Multiple sclerosis

Optic neuritis – or inflammation of the optic nerve – can herald multiple sclerosis (MS), which is a degenerative disease of the nervous system, says Mitchell Munson, past president of the American Optometric Association. Optic neuritis is detected in 75% of MS patients. It is the first symptom in 25% of MS patients. (A diagnosis of optic neuritis is not always a sign of MS. It could be the result of an infection or other causes). “Patients with optic neuritis may have blurred vision, but they often have no symptoms,” says Mitchell Munson.

Rheumatoid arthritis

Nearly 25% of people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) have an eye problem: often, they have dry eyes. Another clue for Mitchell Munson: “A patient who presents in one year with two cases of iritis, a painful inflammation of the iris or colored part, or three cases in 18 months, could have RA.” People who have this autoimmune disease that attacks the small joints in the hands and feet usually have high levels of inflammatory chemicals in the blood. These can migrate to the eyeball, in addition to the joints, he concludes.