Looking for heart disease? The eyes have it

Russia's Dinara Safina eyes the ball during her semifinal match against compatriot Svetlana Kuznetsova at the French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros in Paris June 5, 2008. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The eyes may carry important early clues to heart disease, signaling damage to tiny blood vessels long before symptoms start to show elsewhere, researchers reported on Tuesday.

People with a type of eye damage known as retinopathy were more likely to die of heart disease over the next 12 years than those without it, according to the team at the University of Sydney and the University of Melbourne in Australia and the National University of Singapore.

They studied the retinal photographs of 3,000 people, most of whom had diabetes. Such snapshots are often taken to see if the diabetes has begun to damage the eyes. Then they checked records for deaths.

“Over 12 years, 353 participants (11.9 percent) had incident coronary heart disease-related deaths,” the researchers reported in the journal Heart.

People with retinopathy were nearly twice as likely to die of heart disease as people without it, said the team, led by the University of Sydney’s Gerald Liew.

Retinopathy raised the risk of heart disease as much as diabetes did, they found. Diabetes is a well known risk factor for heart disease, the leading cause of death in most industrialized nations and many developing ones.

People with these changes may be getting a first warning that damage is occurring in their arteries, and work to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, the researchers said.

Reporting by Maggie Fox, editing by Will Dunham