Cholesterol and the Eye

When we think of high cholesterol most everyone thinks about heart attacks and strokes.  But cholesterol affects other parts of the body and the eye is no exception.  This article will cover some of the concerns with elevated cholesterol levels and your vision.

Cholesterol is necessary.  In the body, cholesterol is actually a lubricant to assist with blood flow.  But just like the oil in your car engine, too much is not a good thing.  Normal levels of cholesterol in the blood will produce a slick surface on the lining of the arteries and improves blood flow.  But excessive cholesterol will begin to clump up on the walls of the arteries and impede the flow of blood.  This disruption in blood flow can occur anywhere in the body.  At some point the ‘clump’ of cholesterol can come loose and lodge further downstream in the blood flow.  This blockage can cause a stroke, heart attack, or a pulmonary (lung) clot, also called an embolus.

But what about the eye?  Can high cholesterol affect the eye?  Yes, it sure can.  The primary artery to the eye branches off the carotid artery in the neck.  The carotid supply the brain and other parts of the head and face.  The entire retina is supplied by one artery.  Any blockage in this artery can cause a sudden loss of blood to the retina.  Even if the blood flow to the retina is restored, the damage done is permanent and happens within minutes.  The block may occur in the main optic artery therefore affecting the entire eye, or it may occur further down stream and affect half or part of the retina.

Can high cholesterol be detected by an eye examination?

Yes, when the doctor examines your retinal arteries and veins, one of the potential problems they’re looking for is high cholesterol.  During the microscopic portion of the eye exam, the doctor will look for excessive cholesterol or other problems that can impair blood flow in the eye like high blood pressure and diabetes.  In addition, cholesterol can deposit on the cornea on the front of the eye.  This does not affect the vision, but will alert the doctor to a potentially high cholesterol level.

So, can I skip my primary doctor and just ask my eye doctor to check my cholesterol?

No, you still need to see your primary doctor.  High cholesterol may affect the eye, but it may not.  So, just because the eye doctor doesn’t see a cholesterol problem in the eye doesn’t mean you’re off the hook and you should still be tested as directed by your doctor.


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