Eye care is often the least of all health concerns. Yet to be actively engaged with life and work, productively healthy vision is a must. According to the Center for Disease Control, eye disease is one of the most common causes of permanent disability in the United States. More than 20 million Americans, age 40 and older, have cataracts. 10 million Americans age 60 and over have age-related macular degeneration (AMD). This is a non-painful disease that blurs the sharp, central vision you need for “straight-ahead” activities such as reading, sewing, and driving. AMD affects the macula, the part of the eye that allows you to see fine detail.
Common eye problems include blurred vision, halos, blind spots, and floaters. Blurred vision refers to the loss of sharpness of vision and not being able to see small details. Blind spots, called scotomas, are dark “holes” in the visual field in which nothing can be seen. Floaters are small bits of protein or other material that drift in the clear gel-like part of the eye. These problems can be from damage to the eye itself, a condition of the body like aging or diabetes, or a medicine.
Often, people with vision problems wait too long before getting an eye exam. If you have any change in vision, have it checked out by an eye care professional. Only an eye healthcare professional can identify serious vision problems, like glaucoma or diabetic retinopathy, at a stage early enough to treat.
Everyone should have a regular dilated exam every year or two, and a dilated exam annually after age 60, according to the American Optometric Association (AOA). Between routine visits, you can take these essential steps which may maintain or improve your vision:
Feed your eyes
Nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, lutein, zinc, vitamins C and E, fish, nuts, legumes, carrots, green leafy vegetables, sweet potatoes, beef, and eggs might help ward off age-related vision problems like cataracts and macular degeneration. At the very least, shoot for 5 servings daily of fruits and vegetables. Consuming certain fats like Monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of AMD and are potentially protective. Consuming high amounts of other fats, including saturated fats, trans fats and omega-6 fatty acids, likely contributes to age related macular degeneration (AMD).
Smoking tobacco increases the risk of macular degeneration (due to toxic effects that damage the macula of the retina) by two to three times that of someone who has never smoked. Not smoking may be the most important modifiable factor in preventing macular degeneration.
Rest your eyes
Take regular breaks while doing computer work and other tasks that mostly involve your eyes. One of the most common eye problems experienced by adults today is failing vision. This may be due to eye strain caused by eye fatigue, dry eyes, bad lighting, and sitting posture. In fact, long hours spent working in front of computers is often a main factor contributing to eye strain. Symptoms include:
- difficulty in focusing
- blurred vision
- dry and/or irritated eyes
- after-images when looking away from a screen
- sensitivity to lighting
Help relieve eye strain
There many ways to ease eye strain. Start by blinking often. Closing your eyes frequently, or look far into the distance every 15-20 minutes to relax them. Sit at least 20 inches away from a screen. The centre of your screen should be 4-6 inches below your natural eye level. Keep your screen free of dust to minimize visual interference. Select a font size of 12 points or above. Create an eye-friendly environment around your computer screen by placing the documents you are working on at the same level as the screen to avoid having to re-focus your vision and eliminate reflections on your computer screen. It may come as no surprise that a fluid essential to life is also vital to eye health. Drinking plenty of water can prevent dehydration, which may reduce the symptoms of dry eyes.
Inadequate sleep may contribute to eye fatigue. Symptoms of eye fatigue include eye irritation, difficulty focusing, dryness or excessive tears, blurred or double vision, light sensitivity, or pain in the neck, shoulders, or back. Make sure that you get at least 7-8 hours of sleep every night to help prevent eye fatigue.
Wear your glasses
This sounds obvious, but many people with low to moderate vision loss leave them at home or tucked in a pocket or purse because of vanity or forgetfulness. Make sure the vision correction is up to date for close and far work. All too often we’re still using glasses we outgrew years ago.
Shield your eyes
Wear sunglasses that protect your eyes from UVA and UVB rays, even on cloudy days and in the shade. Even though shade lessens UV and HEV exposure significantly, you’re still exposing your eyes to UV rays reflected off of buildings and other structures. Look for sunglasses that have a sticker that specifies the lenses block 99% or 100% of UVB and UVA rays. Prolonged exposure to UV rays can harm your eyesight; protection in youth can help prevent loss of eyesight in later years. Exposure to UV rays has been linked to cataracts, macular degeneration, and harmful conditions for the eyes. Damage to eyes from UV rays builds up over a lifetime so it’s important to shield children from harmful rays. Make sure your children wear hats and protective glasses when they are out in the sunlight for prolonged periods. And never stare directly into the sun, even if you are wearing UV sunglasses. The sun’s rays are very powerful and can damage the sensitive parts of the retina if exposed to full sunlight.
Keep up with your contacts
Closely follow the recommended schedule for cleaning and wearing contact lenses. Take your contacts out at the end of the day and avoid wearing for more than 19 hours. Wearing contact lenses for too long can cause permanent vision damage as well as extreme discomfort to your eyes. Never sleep with your contact lenses in unless your doctor specifically instructs you to do so. Your eyes need regular supplies of oxygen, and lenses block the flow of oxygen to the eyes, especially during sleep. Doctors recommend a break from wearing contact lenses during the night. Do not swim while wearing contact lenses unless you are wearing tight fitting swimming goggles. It’s better to use prescription goggles, if needed. It is fine to wear contacts in the shower providing you keep your eyes closed when you are likely to get soap or shampoo in your eyes. One of the most important caveats is to wash your hands before handling your contact lenses.
Know your family’s eye history
Share family eye history with your healthcare providers. Knowledge of past and present family eye disorders can help save your vision. In fact, if age-related macular degeneration (AMD) runs in your family, you have a 50% chance of developing AMD. And, according to the Glaucoma Research Foundation, having a family history of glaucoma makes you four to nine times more likely to get the disease. Aside from your family medical background, know that your age, race, and gender all play a factor into eye diseases that you may or may not be prone to. For example, nearly two- thirds of people affected by vision loss are female and elderly individuals with African ancestry and are five times more likely to develop glaucoma. A little knowledge can go a long way when it comes to saving your sight.
Learn about side effects
Some medications can impact eye health. These include medicines used as treatments for autoimmune diseases, i.e. rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Chronic steroid use, anti allergy drops can also affect eye health. Ask your healthcare provider if you need more frequent eye exams due to medication use.
Check your overall health
If you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or diabetes, make sure these conditions are under control. Many underlying diseases affect the health and well being of your eyes and vision. More frequent exams may be warranted.
Cut back on allergen reducing eye drops
Eye drops may help ‘get the red out’ and soothe itchiness, but daily use can actually make the problem worse. It can cause something called rebound redness, which results in excessive eye redness because eyes no longer respond to eye drops. The drops work by constricting the blood flow to the cornea, which deprives it of oxygen. So while your eyes don’t feel inflamed and itchy anymore, they’re actually not getting enough oxygen from blood. The eye muscles and tissues need oxygen to function and lack of oxygen can result in swelling and scarring. Read the labels of eye drops carefully, especially if you wear contacts. Many eye drops cannot be used while wearing contacts.
Regular exercise can help prevent or control other diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, and heart issues. By getting at least 30 minutes of exercise, three times per week, you can reduce your chances of developing serious eye diseases like glaucoma and macular degeneration.
Give your eyes a quick spa treatment
Press cold cucumber slices gently against eyelids for 10-15 minutes before going to sleep at night to help treat and prevent eyelid puffiness. Or soak green tea bags in cold water for a few minutes and place over eyes for 15-20 minutes. The tannins in the tea should help reduce inflammation.
Don’t forget to protect one of your most valuable commodities- your eyes!