By Dr. Anthony Policastro

As we get older, changes in our vision are common. We go to see eye specialists to get new prescriptions for our glasses.

We sometimes forget that there are multiple disorders that affect various parts of the body. The eye is often one of those areas.

A good example of that is diabetes. Diabetics can have multiple changes appear in the eyes, including bleeding, leakage of fluid, and areas of poor blood flow. Thus someone might find that the first sign of diabetes is found by the eye specialist.

Finding this is important to make an early diagnosis to prevent further damage to the eye. This is one of the reasons that diabetic patients need to have their eyes examined annually. It is also one of the reasons that these individuals should keep their blood sugar under careful control.

The incidence of blindness in the general population is about 0.3 percent. In diabetics it is almost 10 times that amount at 2.5 percent. That means that about one out of every 40 diabetics will go blind.

Another disorder that results in multiple changes on the eye exam is hypertension. Hypertensive retinopathy occurs in about 10 percent of adult non-diabetic patients. The good news is that treatment of the hypertension results in improvement in the eye findings.

The optic nerve provides sensation to the eye. It is visible on an eye exam. As a nerve, it is part of the nervous system. Some neurological disorders can cause changes in the optic nerve. 

For example optic nerve inflammation is the first symptom of multiple sclerosis in about 20 percent of patients with that diagnosis.

Swelling of the optic nerve can be an early sign of brain tumor due to increased pressure in the cranial space.

It is likely that we will be able to see other diagnoses as our tests become more sophisticated. Some types of Alzheimer’s disease can show a substance called amyloid in the retina and in the lens. 

Retinal scans are currently being tested in mice to diagnose retinal changes that suggest an Alzheimer’s-like condition. This may become a more definitive test in the future compared to the current methods for diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease which are cumbersome. This would be a significant advance in that area.

We all expect to do some routine lab tests when we have our annual checkup. We should consider an annual eye exam as another piece of useful information in diagnosing other health issues.