Can a Selfie Detect Heart Disease?

New technology uses a computer algorithm to detect coronary artery disease—all it needs is four photos of your face.

by Sarah Ellis Health Writer

What would you say if we told you that a selfie could help you figure out your risk for heart disease? It sounds wild, but it just might be possible. A new study in the European Heart Journal found that an algorithm developed by researchers could detect coronary artery disease (CAD) by analyzing detailed images of a person’s face. This technology could eventually become a screening tool that helps doctors identify patients at high risk for CAD and refer them to further medical care.

It’s Written All Over Your Face

You probably don’t think of your face as a measure of how healthy your heart is. But previous research dating back to a 1995 Danish study published in the American Heart Journal has shown that certain physical features associated with aging (like baldness, graying hair, and wrinkles) are also linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. More recent work has expanded on this initial idea. A 2011 study in the American Journal of Ophthalmology identified cholesterol deposits around the eyes as a sign of cardiovascular disease. And a 2014 study in Circulation found that those who look “old” for their age may have an elevated heart disease risk.

“Certain facial features have been found by a few scientific studies to be associated with increased risk of coronary artery disease and poor cardiovascular health,” says Jennifer Hall, Ph.D., co-director at the Institute for Precision Cardiovascular Medicine at the American Heart Association in Dallas. “These facial features include earlobe crease, facial wrinkle, gray hair, baldness, xanthelasma (a yellowish collection of fatty cholesterol around the eyelids), and arcus cornealis (lipid deposits that appear as gray/white arcs above and below the cornea, the transparent front part of the eye that covers the iris and pupil).” Of course, aging itself is an independent risk factor for development of cardiovascular disease.

The AI Connection

Using this knowledge, researchers were able to develop an artificial intelligence model that looks for these specific features on a person’s face. Zhe Zheng, M.D., lead researcher on this study and vice director of the National Center for Cardiovascular Diseases in Beijing, explains: “Based on the CAD probability assessed by the algorithm, people may make further medical decisions, like a medical visit. This technology has potential to be developed into a mobile app for CAD screening in community or outpatient clinics.”

How, exactly, would a CAD-screening app work? Simple: Patients with no history of heart problems could input their photos into the system, learn about their CAD risk, and decide whether to seek further examination from a doctor. Dr. Zheng explains that the technology still needs to be tested on more people, but he hopes it can ultimately help to make CAD diagnoses quicker and easier.

A note of caution, though—it's unlikely this technology should be used to take the place of seeing a clinician for professional care, says Hall. If you are worried about heart disease, it’s always smart to see a doctor about it, no matter your history or risk. Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the U.S., accounting for one in four deaths. CAD is the most common type of heart disease, affecting 18.2 million American adults age 20 and older. Needless to say, it’s something everyone should pay attention to and work actively to prevent.

What This Means Right Now

This selfie technology isn’t on the market just yet, but there’s plenty you can do to monitor your heart disease risk on your own. In addition to keeping an eye on the visual cue for heart disease, above, here’s a quick list of risk factors from the CDC:

  • High blood pressure

  • High LDL and low HDL cholesterol

  • Diabetes

  • Obesity

  • Tobacco use

  • A diet high in saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol

  • Low physical activity

  • Family history

Hall notes that men over 45 and post-menopausal women are also considered to be at risk, since the likelihood of heart disease increases as you age.

Staying healthy starts with knowledge and prevention. “Treatment of coronary artery disease begins with a healthy diet, including eating a healthy diet, exercising, controlling your weight, and stopping smoking,” Hall says. “In addition to adopting and living a healthy lifestyle, talk to your healthcare provider about your blood pressure and cholesterol.” Early management of these conditions can lower your risk of heart problems later in life. And hey, maybe one day you’ll be able to put those selfie-taking skills to use for your health.

Sarah Ellis
Meet Our Writer
Sarah Ellis

Sarah Ellis is a wellness and culture writer who covers everything from contraceptive access to chronic health conditions to fitness trends. She is originally from Nashville, Tennessee and currently resides in NYC. She has written for Elite Daily, Greatist, mindbodygreen and others. When she’s not writing, Sarah loves distance running, vegan food, and getting the most out of her library card.