YOUR risk of a potentially deadly heart attack can be detected in your eye up to five years earlier. 

There may also be unique signals for diabetes and stroke, scientists have discovered.

Researchers led by the University of Edinburgh studied hundreds of thousands of Brits who were part of the UK Biobank database.

Each participant had imaging of their retina – the light sensing layer at the back of the eye.

From these images, the researchers were able to look at the health of blood vessels in the retina, using a measure called fractal dimension (Df).

Findings showed that lower Df was linked to coronary artery disease, and its potentially fatal outcome, a heart attack, in Brits.

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Coronary heart disease is the most common type of heart disease and biggest cause of heart attack.

It and was the single biggest killer of both and men and women worldwide in 2019.

The researchers then developed a model that was able to predict heart attack risk.

It factored in Df as well as traditional risk factors such as age, sex, race BMI and smoking status – called demographic data. 

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Ms Ana Villaplana-Velasco, a PhD student at the university, said the results were “striking”.

The model was better at signalling who was at increased risk of heart attack than just relying on demographic data.

“The improvement of our model was even higher if we added a score related to the genetic propensity of developing MI [heart attack]”, Ms Villaplana-Velasco said.

She added: “We looked at the genetics of Df and found nine genetic regions driving retinal vascular branching patterns.

“Four of these regions are known to be involved in cardiovascular disease genetics. 

“In particular, we found that these common genetic regions are involved in processes related to MI [heart attack] severity and recovery.”

Variations in the retinal blood vessels also pinpoint to diseases such as diabetic retinopathy and stroke.

The researchers believe it is possible that every condition may have a unique retinal variation profile. 

Therefore, it’s possible to create a simple retinal examination to identify people at risk.

The average age for a heart attack is 60.

The researchers found that their model achieved its best predictive performance more than five years before the event.

“So the calculation of an individualised MI [heart attack] risk from those over 50 years old would seem to be appropriate,” says Ms Villaplan-Velasco. 

While a heart attack prediction may be a daunting prospect, it's useful information for patients who can take measures to reduce their risk.

Ms Villaplan-Velasco said: “This would enable doctors to suggest behaviours that could reduce risk, such as giving up smoking and maintaining normal cholesterol and blood pressure. 

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“Our work once more shows the importance of comprehensive analysis of data that is routinely collected and its value in the further development of personalised medicine.”

The findings are being presented at the annual conference of the European Society of Human Genetics.

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