Routine eye tests can detect people at risk of heart attack
Why you really should go to Specsavers: Routine eye tests could spot people at risk of heart attack in the coming year, experts say
- Scientists have trained an AI to examine routine eye scans for signs of heart disease
- Using UK eye scans, AI identified up to 80% of people who had a heart attack
- Researchers hope it could be used to help flag high-risk heart patients for treatment
- An equivalent scan currently requires people to make an appointment at the hospital
A routine eye test at the opticians could be used to identify patients at risk of heart attack, a study suggests.
Scientists have developed an AI program that can analyze routine eye scans for early warning signs of a heart problem.
It works by looking for changes in small blood vessels at the back of the eye, which evidence suggests contains important information about heart health.
Problems with blood circulation can cause cells in the retina to become damaged and die, leaving a permanent mark.
Researchers from the University of Leeds were able to accurately identify heart attack patients within a year with an accuracy of up to 80 percent.
The study of 3,000 patients was published in the journal Nature Machine Intelligence.
Cardiovascular disease is the second leading cause of death in the UK, causing 160,000 deaths each year – an average of 460 deaths per day. In the US, 659,000 people die each year from heart disease.
Scientists hope the AI can use routine eye scans taken on optometrists and sound the alarm if it notices signs of a heart problem
What is the retina?
The retina is a layer of cells at the back of the eyeball opposite the pupil.
It is responsible for converting light entering the eye into chemical messages.
These chemical messages are sent to the brain and interpreted as the images that make up our eyesight.
Previous studies have suggested that retinal scans are a good way to detect heart disease.
This is because poor circulation, a possible early indicator of heart disease, can cause areas of the retina to die, leaving a permanent mark.
Optometrists often look at the retina of both eyes during a standard eye test, looking for signs of other health problems.
Deeper and more specialized retinal imaging scans are available from some optometrists in the UK, but these are sometimes not included in a standard eye test.
Professor Alex Frangi, an expert in computational medicine at the University of Leeds, who led the research, said this AI could revolutionize the detection of heart disease.
“This technique opens up the possibility of revolutionizing heart disease screening,” he said.
‘Retina scans are relatively inexpensive and are routinely used in many opticians’ practices.
‘As a result of automated screening, patients at high risk of becoming ill can be referred to specialized cardiac services.’
The study also involved scientists from York, China, France, the US and Belgium.
Scientists trained the AI by having it analyze the retinal scans of more than 5,000 Britons and then associate it with signs of damage in the retina with changes in a patient’s heart.
The AI program could then estimate the size and pumping efficiency of the left ventricle, one of the heart’s four chambers.
An enlarged or inefficient left ventricular indicator is an indicator of heart disease.
If it detects a worrisome left ventricle, the AI can use a patient’s basic medical data, such as their age and gender, to estimate their risk of having a heart attack in the following year.
The results of the AI were compared with historical patient data to see if they had suffered any.
Current technology means that scanning the left ventricle of the heart requires one of two types of scans, an ultrasound called echocardiography, or an MRI of the heart.
Both are expensive and can only be performed in hospital, so developing other ways to assess heart health could save the NHS time and money.
The authors of the most recent study added that the AI system could also be useful in countries with extremely limited capacity for expensive heart scans.
People may mistake the classic symptoms of a heart attack, such as chest pain, for another health problem, and in some cases, they may not have them at all.
Some studies estimate the number of heart attacks that go undetected at nearly half, while others estimate it at one in five.
In England, people between the ages of 40 and 74 are invited for a general health check, which involves a number of tests for heart disease every five years. Similar arrangements also exist in the other British countries.
About 14 million people in the UK live with high blood pressure, one of the main risk factors for heart attack, and 5 million of this group are unaware that they are at risk.