Posted by Neharika Sabharwal on August 14, 2013

A trip to the optician can do more than assess your sight. It could be a life saver! According to experts, a simple eye test could be a warning sign of an impending life-threatening illness like stroke.

Though studies have established that people suffering from high blood pressure are more vulnerable to stroke, it's still not possible to predict which are most likely to develop the ailment.

Researchers delving into the link between hypertensive retinopathy (an eye disorder triggered by high blood pressure, where the retina becomes damaged) and stroke risk found retinal imaging was an effective way to identify patients who are at high risk for stroke.

Study researcher Mohammad Kamran Ikram, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in the Singapore Eye Research Institute at the National University of Singapore stated, "The retina provides information on the status of blood vessels in the brain.Retinal imaging is a non-invasive and cheap way of examining the blood vessels of the retina.”

Link between hypertensive retinopathy and stroke risk examined
In order to examine an association between hypertensive retinopathy and stroke risk, the researchers carried out a study. They tracked 2,907 hypertensive patients without diabetes or prior stroke or heart disease for a period of 13 years.

Each participant had photos taken of the retina (the layer of light-sensitive cells at the back of the eyeball) at the onset of the study. Based on the damage evident in the photos, each patient’s hypertensive retinopathy was categorized as none, mild, moderate or severe.

Findings
During the follow-up 165 cases of stroke were documented. It was noted that 146 patients experienced a stroke caused by a blood clot and 15 by bleeding in the brain.

After accounting for other stroke risk factors such as age, sex, race, cholesterol levels, blood sugar, body mass index, smoking and blood pressure readings, the study found danger of stroke was 35 percent greater for those with mild hypertensive retinopathy and 137 percent higher in those with moderate or severe hypertensive retinopathy.

It was noted that even patient’s who took medication and managed their blood pressure levels, displayed an elevated risk of stroke if they already had retinal blood vessel damage.

Though the study shows promise, experts feel there is need for further research to substantiate the findings.

"Other studies need to confirm our findings and examine whether retinal imaging can be useful in providing additional information about stroke risk in people with high blood pressure," Ikram said.

This study was published in the American Heart Association journal Hypertension.

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