Are the eyes “windows to the soul,” as the ancient proverb has it? Maybe, but they are certainly portals through which one can glimpse signs of certain health problems -- not only eye disorders like cataracts and glaucoma, but also systemic illnesses like diabetes mellitus and cardiovascular disease. Sometimes the signs of these diseases are visible in, on, or around the eyes long before symptoms appear.
“The eyes truly are unique real estate,” says Andrew Iwach, MD, associate clinical professor of ophthalmology at the University of California San Francisco and executive director of the Glaucoma Center of San Francisco. “They’re the only place in the body where you can see a bare nerve, a bare artery, and a bare vein without doing any cutting. And the disease processes we see occurring in the eye are probably occurring in the rest of the body.”
The list of systemic diseases that can have ocular manifestations is a long one; in addition to diabetes and cardiovascular disease, it includes aneurysms, HIV, cancer, and rare hereditary diseases. The list is one reason eye experts recommend periodic eye exams.
“Everyone should have a comprehensive eye exam by age 40,” says Ruth D. Williams, MD, an ophthalmologist and glaucoma specialist in Wheaton, Ill., and, like Iwach, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. “People who have a family history of eye problems should be seen earlier, and anyone who is having eye trouble should see a doctor right away. But people shouldn’t wait until they experience symptoms to see a doctor, because many eye problems are silent,” meaning they cause no symptoms.
Some ocular manifestations of systemic disease can be seen only by a trained specialist during the course of an eye exam. Others are plain for all to see. Here are 10 of the most common eye signs and what they might be saying about your health: