How can an eye test save your life?

30-07-2021

An eye test is much more than just getting you some new glasses if required. Your optician can diagnose potentially life-threatening conditions as well as common eye diseases.

OutsideClinic optician Jaclyn Fortune loves being able to make a difference in her patient's lives by visiting them at home when they cannot get to a local optician. Even if you are struggling with your mobility, you should still get regular eye examinations to ensure that not just your eyes, but your body is healthy.

"One patient who really sticks out to me where I made a difference was a housebound gentleman with arthritis. I dilated him and saw that he had bilateral papilloedema, and I knew that this gentleman had raised intracranial pressure, which could be stemming from a brain tumour. We arranged the urgent referral that this man needed to get him to the hospital, where I believe he had some brain surgery to relieve the pressure, and he is still alive today," said Jaclyn.

Unfortunately, many older people now have more than one illness, often referred to as comorbidity. However, it may come as a surprise to many people that opticians can pick up on underlying health conditions through a simple eye examination. As our eyes can be the windows to our soul, they can also share a lot of information about our overall health.

Common comorbid conditions in older people include heart disease, hypertension, respiratory disease, mental health problems (including dementia), cerebrovascular disease, joint disease, diabetes and sensory impairment. [1]

The NHS recommends an eye test every two years or as advised by your optician, but on average British adults have their eyes tested every three years, and one in ten never get their eyes tested at all. [2]

OutsideClinic Optometrist and Professional Service Manager Matt Burford said: "One of the most important things you can do for your eyes is to have regular eye examinations. It is essential to diagnose any problems and seek treatment early, and it could also potentially pick up on other health conditions that could be life-altering."

So, in what ways can an eye test save your life?

Brain tumours

There are around 5,400 brain tumour deaths in the UK every year, and a third of them are in people aged 75 or older, according to Cancer Research UK. [3] An optician can use a range of skills, including asking questions, examining the optic nerve head and pupils and performing a visual field test to determine whether this could be a problem you are experiencing. An urgent referral would be made, and you would then receive the treatment you need to prevent further complications.

Diabetes

Believe it or not, diabetes can be identified through a simple eye examination. Those with diabetes often have an eye condition called diabetic retinopathy, which causes damage to the blood vessels in a person's retina. Diabetes can develop slowly, usually over the age of 40. The signs may not be obvious, or there may be no signs at all, and it might be up to ten years before you find out you have it. [4] While diabetes may not cause sudden death if it goes undiagnosed, diabetes complications may be disabling or even life-threatening. It is also the leading cause of blindness in people of working age in the UK.

Hypertension

Hypertension or high blood pressure is where your blood pushes against the blood vessel walls with too much force, putting extra strain on your heart. It can often lead to several health problems, including strokes, heart disease, heart attacks, kidney disease, diabetes and many more. With a third of adults in the UK having high blood pressure but unaware of it, it can be very dangerous. [5]It can be diagnosed with a simple blood pressure check, but it can also be noticed by an optician who might see signs affecting the vessels at the back of the eye during the examination.

Heart Disease

Cardiovascular disease is the UK's number one killer, with someone dying from the condition every three minutes. [6] The risk of heart disease is increased if you have high blood pressure or diabetes – both conditions that can be picked up from an eye test. You can also be at risk if you have high cholesterol. Your optician may detect signs of high blood cholesterol through an examination for instance, if they see a white ring around the cornea (the clear surface of your eye) or cholesterol plaques within the retinal vessels. They may advise you to see your GP, potentially leading to a diagnosis and preventing any further complications.

[1] Morbidity - Comorbidity and multimorbidity. What do they mean? | British Geriatrics Society (bgs.org.uk)

[2] vob20.pdf (optegra.com)

[3] Brain, other CNS and intracranial tumours statistics | Cancer Research UK

[4] The risk factors of type 2 diabetes | Diabetes UK

[5] Blood Pressure UK

[6] Heart Research Institute UK • Cardiovascular and Heart Disease (hriuk.org)