Eye problems caused directly by high cholesterol levels are generally not commonplace, but the role of high LDL cholesterol levels in tandem with other factors significantly exacerbates a number of eye problems, conditions and diseases. The primary combination that can result in very serious eye illness is high cholesterol in conjunction with high blood pressure. More about that later.
Only in the most severe cases of high cholesterol levels and high triglycerides are eye problems prevalent. These are most often displayed within a family unit, and are therefore hereditary; this condition is known as “familial hyperlipidemia”. Although it can manifest in several ways, it generally shows as a grey or whitish arc (they look slightly “milky”) that encircles the cornea, the clear covering that protects the front of the eye. A condition known as “arcus senilis” is a partial arc and is common in the elderly; it is not directly related to high cholesterol. Conversely the full circle, “circumferential arcus” appears in young adults and is often associated with high cholesterol levels.
These arcs are caused by lipid (fat) deposits located deep within the extremities of the cornea, and that is how they may connect with high cholesterol. The fact is that most people with high cholesterol do not get corneal arcs, but being aware of them helps to detect them early and seek medical help.
Deposits and Marks Around the Eyes
One indication of high cholesterol levels can be discolorations or tiny bumps, often occurring on the skin just below the eyes or on the eyelids themselves. These marks or bumps, called “xanthomas”, are painless and normally are not a sign of other more serious diseases such as skin cancer, but why risk it? If you have these bumps or marks, check with your doctor to determine their exact cause.
Xanthomas may look unattractive and be a sign of high cholesterol, but they will not, as a rule, cause eye disease or affect your vision, unless one grows on the inside edge of your eyelid and literally blocks your vision. Mostly the tiny bumps appear like miniature whitehead pimples, but they occur in places, like below the eyes, where pimples seldom erupt. Where a pimple will feel hard to the touch, a xanthoma is soft, feeling pretty much like normal flesh, albeit slightly raised.
On occasion, they may appear on the edge of the eyelid, looking very similar to a sty, but never becoming red or inflamed, which is typical behavior for a sty. A sty follows a predictable pattern of emerging, filling, breaking and healing within a couple of weeks; a xanthoma growls slowly, usually over several months and does not progress much.
Discoloration usually appears in a yellowish, pinkish (almost the shade of salmon) or reddish tone and can settle into the crease of the eyelid, inner corner of the eye, leaning to the side of the nose, or on the skin beneath the eye. Other than being a messenger to tell you your cholesterol levels are high, xanthomas are in and of themselves not harmful, but even if you get your cholesterol levels under control, the xanthomas may never completely go away.
The Connection Between High Cholesterol, High Blood Pressure and Eye Problems
A great number of people who have high blood pressure also have high cholesterol, and vice versa. The actual percentage remains under study, but some estimates are as high as 95%. For the time being, that statistic is an educated guess, but what is firm is that the combination of high blood pressure and high cholesterol exacerbates heart-related problems and also sets the stage for compromised eye health.
A study entitled, “Comparing self-reported and measured high blood pressure and high cholesterol status using data from a large representative cohort study”, was published in the Australia/New Zealand Journal of Public Health in August of 2010. The objective was to understand the relationship between high blood pressure and high cholesterol, using a random sample of the population. The results showed, “98% specificity for both, but sensitivity was low for high cholesterol (27.8%) and moderate for high blood pressure (49.0%).” For the complete report, please visit: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20649780.
What is clear is that, individually, high blood pressure and high cholesterol cause risk to the heart, but when they occur at the same time in one person, the risk becomes higher and more complex. As previously noted, eye problems are seldom the direct offshoot of high cholesterol, but when it is mixed with high blood pressure, a more common cause of eye disease and illness, the results can be much worse for eye health.
In simple terms, high blood pressure triggers more effort on the part of the heart as it struggles to function properly; high cholesterol can block the smooth flow of blood to vital organs and result in clots. Together, they’re a double-whammy.
Because high blood pressure causes or exacerbates a variety of eye problems, when high cholesterol is added to the cocktail, the outcome is more severe and more complicated. Together they present a significant risk for retinal vein occlusion; this is a condition related to the veins in the eyes, and it causes loss of vision. A study conducted at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland, set about discovering the connection between these factors, and concluded: “…High cholesterol levels were more than twice as common among patients with retinal vein occlusion as those without (35.1 percent vs. 16.7 percent), and those with high cholesterol levels had an approximately 2.5-fold higher risk of retinal vein occlusion…”
If you know you have either high cholesterol or high blood pressure, or both, and you experience headaches around your eyes or a change in your vision, even if you already wear eyeglasses, report this to your doctor. It may indicate that you are experiencing damage to the blood vessels in your retina, and this can be a very serious situation.
Your eyes work hard and even if they enjoy 20/20 vision and good health, they may be compromised by high cholesterol levels. Know what signs to look for and what symptoms might mean trouble. And see your way (pun intended) to maintaining good eye health despite other influences, such as cholesterol levels.