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What Your Eyes Can Tell You About Your Health (Hint: It’s a Lot)

Photo credit: iStock/LuckyBusiness

Photo credit: iStock/LuckyBusiness

“I’ve picked up colon cancer [from looking at] the eye.”

If you can believe it, this is one of the less shocking, albeit fascinating, facts to emerge from a recent interview with Leonard Ginsburg, MD, CDE, an ophthalmologist and clinical chief of the Department of Ophthalmology at Drexel University College of Medicine. His statement above, far from the illnesses we might typically attribute to an eye specialist, isn’t abnormal. In fact, the renowned ophthalmologist regularly identifies disorders and diseases—all by assessing a patient’s eyes. 

As it turns out, the eyes provide a wealth of information, leading us to ask him what makes them such telling organs. “[The] only extension of the brain — outside of the brain — is the human eye,” he explains. “The optic nerve goes from the brain to the eye (connected like a cable), and out of that comes the retina.” The retina is absolute brain tissue, which is why the brain immediately interprets what you see. Ginsburg notes that physicians can even discover increased pressure in the brain as a result of assessing their patients’ eyes.

A slew of other ailments can be discerned, too. When asked, he specifically refers to high blood pressure, atherosclerosis (often the cause of strokes and heart attacks), Lyme disease, lupus, syphilis and even tuberculosis. “I pick up [multiple sclerosis] at least once a month,” he admits.  “[The] optic nerve is connected to the brain, and MS affects brain tissue. Very frequently, the first nerve to be affected is the optic nerve.”

When one of the above ailments is detected, Ginsburg will refer the patient to another specialist, often preventing additional deterioration and providing a diagnosis that might not otherwise have been found.

Diabetes is another disease that he frequently uncovers. As one of the only retina specialists in the United States to also be a certified diabetes educator and diabetes specialist, Ginsburg was the first physician in Pennsylvania to introduce a diagnostic test for diabetic macular edema, the number one cause of vision loss in people under 65 in the United States. “Thirty percent of people don’t know they have diabetes,” he explains, which is why it’s even more important that the disease is sleuthed out in alternative methods.

Patients who are diabetic will often come to Ginsburg complaining of blurry vision. During the exam, he might find leaking blood vessels, a product of blood sugar surging up and down over a prolonged period of time, eventually causing the blood vessels to leak. Over time, untreated diabetes can lead to blindness. (Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness for working-age adults.) This, explains Ginsburg, is usually the fear that motivates people with diabetes to make healthy lifestyle changes.

Ginsburg explains that another condition in his area of expertise, age-related macular degeneration (AMD), may also present with no symptoms, leaving it to be discovered during a routine exam. AMD, like diabetes, is affected by nutrition. “By taking certain antioxidant vitamins, people over 65 with macular degeneration can reduce their likelihood of progressing further vision loss by 25%,” says Ginsburg. During his career, he has introduced two of the three most important diagnostic tests in Pennsylvania for this condition: digital indocyanine green (ICG) angiography  and optical coherence tomography (OCT)—both of which have been critical in making these diagnoses.

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