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Why Does My Optometrist Need My Family History?

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A stethoscope sitting on top of a patient's family medical history form

No matter what kind of doctor you’re going to see, filling out your family history is usually part of your first visit.

In my experience, patients seem to think we only need to know about a family history of eye issues. Don’t get me wrong; you should always tell your optometrist about any eye diseases that run in your family. But many patients don’t seem to realize that we are also looking for diseases that may seem unrelated to eye health.

Your body is like a machine made of several smaller systems. While your heart health and eye health may not seem related, these and other systems are connected, and they can all have a profound impact on each other. Here are 5 conditions you should include in your optometric family history.


Diabetes isn’t always genetic. Sometimes it develops as a result of lifestyle. Still, if someone in your family has diabetes type 2 diabetes, you may carry the genetic mutation that can cause it.

Diabetes can lead to a range of eye health issues, not the least of which is diabetic eye disease. This condition is serious and can lead to blindness without proper monitoring and treatment. 

If you’re at risk of developing diabetes, your eye doctor needs to know so they can lookout for early signs of diabetic eye disease. 

High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is a relatively common issue. Many people believe that, as long as they keep an eye on it, their high blood pressure is nothing to worry about.

However, when it comes to ocular health, this may not be strictly true. Your retinae are responsible for detecting light and sending images to your brain through the optic nerve. High blood pressure can damage the delicate blood vessels in your retina over time. This damage may lead to bleeding or scarring that will permanently impact your vision.

If you have high blood pressure or high blood pressure runs in your family, it’s important to let your optometrist know and, of course, work with your general practitioner to keep your blood pressure within a healthy range.


Shingles is a painful and itchy rash that only shows up on one side of the face or body. This condition is caused by a viral infection, meaning it technically isn’t a genetic condition. However, studies show that some families are genetically predisposed to catching the virus.
Shingles is not hereditary, but susceptibility to shingles is.

If the infection develops on or around the eye, patients might end up with permanent corneal scarring. In some cases, the infection can increase intraocular pressure and damage the optic nerve, essentially triggering glaucoma.

You should let your optometrist know if your family is susceptible to shingles. If you’re 50 years old or older, you may also want to get the shingles vaccine, which can reduce your chance of developing shingles by up to 97%

An optometrist discussing a female patient's medical history

Autoimmune Diseases

Autoimmune diseases prevent the human body from distinguishing between safe, healthy cells and foreign or harmful cells. As a result, someone with an autoimmune disease may often be sick or in pain as their body tries to fight itself. 

Lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and AIDS are all examples of autoimmune diseases.

Many autoimmune diseases cause chronic inflammation in or around the eye. This swelling destroys tissue in a condition called uveitis. 
There are different types of uveitis, which are linked to more or less severe symptoms. However, all types of uveitis should be taken seriously as some can result in blindness. 

Sickle Cell Disease

Sickle cell disease is the name for a group of conditions that affect hemoglobin. Hemoglobin delivers oxygen to different parts of the body through red blood cells. In patients with sickle cell disease, the hemoglobin molecules can cause red blood cells to take on a crescent shape.
Unlike normal red blood cells, sickled cells are rigid, which can cause them to get stuck in blood vessels, depriving parts of the body of oxygen.
The blood vessels in the retina are very narrow. Blockages in these blood vessels can cause them to burst and bleed into the retina, which may result in vision loss or even blindness. 

The More Your Optometrist Knows, the Better

Questions about your family medical history may seem irrelevant or invasive, but you must give as much information as you can. Your eye health team knows what medical conditions to look for, so you don’t have to decide what’s relevant and what isn’t.
It’s better just to give them a complete list of medical conditions that run in your family and let them determine which ones to look out for. It could make the difference between managing a condition and living with vision loss. 

Are you due for an eye exam? Contact the team at the Eye Care Centre to book an appointment today!

Written by Dr. Daryl Berger

Dr. Berger was born and raised in Red Deer. After studying at Red Deer College and the U of A, he graduated with honours from the optometry program at Waterloo in 2007. Daryl enjoys music, cars, biking, hiking, snowboarding and travel. He and his wife, Pamela, have twin boys and a dog named Gus.
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