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Yellow Patches Around Eyelids Predict Heart Disease


The eyes are said to be the windows to the soul, but did you know that the eyelids may help predict heart disease? Research from the University of Copenhagen and published in the British Medical Journal notes that raised yellow patches of skin around the eyelids are indications of a person’s increased risk of heart disease or heart attack.

Yellow patches could identify high-risk patients

Raised yellow patches of skin called xanthelasmata frequently appear on the upper or lower eyelids, usually near the inner canthus (corner of the eyes next to the nose). Xanthelasmata consist of lipids, including cholesterol-like substances. Many people have xanthelasmata removed by a dermatologist for cosmetic reasons.

Another lipid-related substance associated with the eyes is arcus corneae, which are white, gray, or yellowish rings around the cornea. Previous studies have determined that both xanthelasmata and arcus corneae are cholesterol deposits, and that about half of people who have one or both of these conditions do not have high cholesterol levels.

In the new study, Professor Anne Tybjaerg-Hansen and her team at the University of Copenhagen explored an association between xanthelasmata and/or arcus corneae and an increased risk of heart disease, heart attack, stroke, severe thickening of the arteries, and premature death in 12,745 people who had participated in the Copenhagen City Heart Study. All the subjects were free of heart disease at the beginning of the study and were followed from 1976-78 until May 2009.

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When the study started, 563 (4.4%) of the participants had xanthelasmata and 3,159 (24.8%) had arcus corneae. During the follow-up, 8,507 people died, 3,699 developed heart disease, 1,872 had a heart attack, 1,815 developed cerebrovascular disease, and 1,498 had a stroke.

Considering the entire study population, the risk of having a heart attack, developing heart disease, or dying within a ten-year period was higher in people who had xanthelasmata. Men ages 70 to 79 had the highest risks: those with xanthelasmata had a 53 percent increased risk for heart disease compared with a 41 percent risk for men without the yellow patches. Among women, the corresponding numbers were 35 percent and 27 percent.

The risk of experiencing a heart attack was highest among the same age group: 28 percent among men with and 19 percent among men without xanthelasmata. Among women, the corresponding numbers were 14 percent and 9 percent. The presence of arcus corneae was not a significant predictor of risk for any of the conditions.

The importance of this study is that the presence of xanthelasmata may help clinicians when they diagnose heart disease and related conditions. When general practitioners see patients who have raised yellow patches around their eyelids, it can help identify individuals who may be at greater risk of heart and cardiovascular disease.

Christoffersen M et al. British Medical Journal 2011; 343:d5497

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons