Can Retinal Exams Predict Heart Attacks?


Ophthalmologists may soon be able to carry out cardiovascular screening by checking the retina – without the need for blood tests. | Image by Zorica Nastasic, Getty Images

Researchers have found that a quick retinal scan, named QUARTZ, can predict a future heart attack, myocardial infarction, and stroke. When combined with a patient’s medical history such as age and smoking history, QUARTZ performs as well or better than the Framingham Risk Score, the former indicator of heart disease risk.

The study was conducted by the University of London and published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology. QUARTZ developed its retinal scanning technology by using AI to scan over 95,000 patients’ eyes and check for key indicators such as vessel enlargement or low blood flow.

After gathering the data from participants, QUARTZ developed an analyzing method that accurately predicts the risk of future cardiac events without the use of blood tests or even taking blood pressure. If QUARTZ continues to be successful and is FDA-approved, the technology could be a low-cost alternative to a full physical examination.

Uniquely, the eyes offer a window into the blood flow because they are not covered by skin and clearly show vessels. In other parts of the body, these blood vessels can only be accurately observed with imaging techniques such as an ultrasound. Earlier this year, the FDA approved an AI-powered retinal examination to identify diabetic retinopathy.

Heart disease plagues the state of Texas and the nation at large. Heart disease is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. Every four seconds, a person dies due to a cardiac event. In Dallas County alone, 435 out of every 100,000 deaths are due to heart disease. 14% of people who die of heart disease are living below the poverty line and 24% are underinsured.

Access to health insurance and regular physical appointments is key to fighting heart disease. Despite these startling statistics, proper diet and wellness can help a person avoid or even prevent heart disease. However, the obesity epidemic and barriers to health insurance have worsened heart disease mortality over the years.

Many people who are underinsured fail to seek a doctor before preliminary symptoms worsen into heart disease. When people are given early and adequate care, their risk of heart disease lowers significantly and may be able to avoid cardiac events such as heart attacks.

QUARTZ has yet to be fully tested but initial results show much promise. After a large, randomized clinical trial, QUARTZ may be an easy minute-long exam in a yearly physical. Since retinal examinations are low-cost, they could be available on pharmacy health scanners or phone apps and remove health insurance barriers altogether.

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