A heart-healthy lifestyle also protects this important body part

The reasons to eat right, work out often, and avoid vices like tobacco are myriad and discussed often. A healthy lifestyle has been linked time and time again to stronger cardiovascular health, a sharper mind, fewer aches and pains, and a longer lifespan in general.

Still, if you were looking for one more reason to start living cleaner, a new study has identified a surprising, seemingly hidden up-until-now benefit associated with healthy cardiovascular choices. 

Researchers from the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center have found that the very same lifestyle choices that promote robust cardiovascular health are also associated with a lower risk of developing ocular diseases like diabetic retinopathy.

In simpler terms, a heart-healthy lifestyle appears to also protect one’s eyes and vision. 

“Earlier studies have observed associations between eye diseases and individual lifestyle factors such as smoking, obesity, or hypertension,” explains lead investigator Duke Appiah, Ph.D., MPH, Department of Public Health, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, in a press release. “It is known that these metrics of ideal cardiovascular health do not work alone and may interact additively to result in diseases. However, prior to our research, no other studies have comprehensively evaluated the association of all of the metrics of ideal cardiovascular health with ocular diseases.”

For this research, the study’s authors analyzed a dataset of 6,118 adults (at least 40 years old), originally collected in 2005-2008 as part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Researchers looked to see how many of the American Heart Association’s Life’s Simple Seven (LS7) recommendations each individual regularly achieved.

Those seven recommendations are regular exercise, no smoking, maintaining normal body weight, stable cholesterol, stable blood pressure, stable blood glucose levels, and a healthy diet.

The more of these healthy lifestyle factors a person reported following, the lower their odds of developing several serious eye conditions (glaucoma, cataracts, macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy). 

All in all, the research team says studied subjects with “optimal cardiovascular health” had a 97% lower chance of developing diabetic retinopathy specifically in comparison to individuals with poor cardiovascular health. On a broader level, just a one-unit increase in a person’s LS7 score was linked to a lower risk of developing glaucoma, macular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy.

The research team hopes that their work motivates at least some people to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Moreover, they speculate it may be a good idea to start screening for eye problems during cardiovascular health assessments.

“We hope that our study findings will encourage adherence to healthy lifestyles in order to prevent these age-related diseases while also leading to increased collaborations between cardiologists, optometrists, and ophthalmologists in order to better prevent cardiovascular and ocular diseases,” Dr. Appiah concludes.

Ocular diseases are no small problem. On a global scale, over two billion people are currently dealing with a form of ocular disease. Unfortunately, a great number of those cases will ultimately result in blindness or at least a significant loss of vision. Even more deflating is the fact that many of those conditions could have been stopped if they had been caught early enough. The problem is that most of these ailments present little to no symptoms during the initial stages. With all that in mind, it’s never too early to start taking better care of your eyes.

Indeed, one’s vision is an integral aspect of their life, yet one that’s often taken for granted. People generally don’t put much thought into taking care of their eyes like they would other body parts. For instance, consider the results of a recent poll conducted by the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

That project polled 2,044 people, and 88% said they consider good vision to be vital to their overall health. Similarly, 47% reported that losing their vision would be the absolute worst health outcome they could imagine. While that sounds somewhat hyperbolic, the notion is something we can all relate to. No one wants to lose their vision. Finally, that poll also reported that 25% of respondents had no knowledge regarding ocular diseases, their typical symptoms, or common warning signs.

There’ll always be plenty of excuses not to start exercising more or eating better. The next time you’re struggling to find the motivation to get off the couch, remember that your eyes (and heart!) will thank you tomorrow for healthy choices made today.

The full study can be found here, published in the American Journal of Medicine.