By contributor
updated 9/16/2011 9:04:45 AM ET 2011-09-16T13:04:45

We’ve all seen a few people, like maybe grandpa or grandma, with those little patches of yellowish plaques around the upper and lower eyelids. You know the ones, the tiny patches that look something like chicken fat. (Click here to see what we're talking about.)

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As it turns out, if somebody you know has these (and it can occur in younger people, too), you should encourage them to be checked carefully for heart disease.

A study published in the most recent British Medical Journal found that these patches, called xanthelasma, were predictors of heart attack, heart disease and death.

In men between the ages of 70 and 79, those with xanthelasma had a 12 percent higher risk of heart disease than men without the eye blobs. The rise in risk in older women was 8 percent.

Importantly, the yellow patches predicted heart disease independently of other risk factors like obesity and cholesterol levels. In other words, even if you had your cholesterol checked, and it was normal, you still had an increased risk of dying from a heart attack if you had xanthelasma.

That’s surprising because doctors have known for decades that the eye condition was a possible sign of high cholesterol. In fact, that’s what the patches are, tiny clumps of macrophages, an immune system cell, stuffed with cholesterol. People with a condition called familial hypercholesterolemia, a genetic disorder that results in elevated “bad” cholesterol levels, often have xanthelasma.

But in this survey of 12,745 people who took part in the Copenhagen City Heart Study over a period of 33 years, Danish researchers show that people with xanthelasma have a higher risk of heart disease regardless of their cholesterol levels.

The authors argue that this finding could have real clinical implications since the patches are usually regarded by those who have them as a benign dermatological issue.

Today, most people with xanthelasma are seen by dermatologists, when they want the blobs removed for cosmetic reasons,” the authors of the paper write. “Some of these people may not have been managed according to their increased risk of cardiovascular disease.”

In other words, just by looking at your eyelids, a doctor finding the yellow patches could be alerted to possible trouble that’s more than skin deep.

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