If you’ve never had a vision problem, you probably don’t give much thought to your eyes. And you may not be aware of the changes that occur as you age, some of which can dramatically affect the way you see — or even lead to blindness.The good news is that even small preventive measures, like wearing sunglasses and eating greens, can help protect your eyesight and stave off vision problems later in life.
Here is a list of 10 eye facts that will help you protect your eyes and your vision for years to come.
1. What you eat matters for your eye health. Eating well is the No. 1 way to take care of your eyes, says Rebecca Taylor, M.D., an ophthalmologist at Nashville Vision Associates in Tennessee, and spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. She also recommends that you aim to get your nutrients from food: “Eat vitamins instead of taking them.”
What should your eye-healthy plate look like? Pretty much like any good, healthy meal. Dr. Taylor starts with a big spinach or kale salad topped with brightly-colored vegetables. Green leafy vegetables provide the nutrients lutein and zeaxanthin, shown to help reduce risk for eye diseases, notes the AAO. And vitamin A found in bright yellow and orange vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes boosts eye health, according to the National Institutes of Health. Adding fruits like strawberries, oranges, and mangoes provides vitamin C and other antioxidants, which Taylor says also help fight eye disease. She also includes salmon or other cold-water fish in her ideal meal, since omega 3s are good for tear production, which relieves dry eyes.
2. Comprehensive eye exams pick up vision problems early. Getting a regular eye exam is the only way to catch a variety of problems, such as glaucoma or diabetic eye disease, ensuring you'll get timely treatment. Most people with vision problems should see their eye doctor once a year to make sure their sight hasn’t changed.
For the rest of us, the AAO recomends the following eye exam schedule:
- At 40: a baseline eye exam
- From 40 to 55: an eye exam every 2 to 4 years
- Ages 55 to 64: an eye exam every 1 to 3 years
- At 65 and up: an eye exam every year
During the exam, your doctor will take your family history and check your pupils, central vision, color vision, and eye pressure. He or she will also dilate, or widen, your pupil using special eye drops to see the back of your eye and check for any damage.
3. Smoking now can cause eye problems later. “Get off tobacco in any form,” Taylor says. When you smoke, cyanide from the smoke gets into your bloodstream and can destroy the eye’s cells. Smoking puts you at higher risk of developing cataracts and increases problems with dry eyes. It also raises your risk of macular degeneration, an incurable condition that destroys vision in the center of the eye, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
4. You can help preserve your eyesight by protecting your eyes from the sun. Taylor recommends two safeguards for your eyes: sunscreen and sunglasses. The skin around your eyes is some of the thinnest on the body and is susceptible to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Various kinds of skin cancer, like carcinoma and melanoma, can form in the eyelids and around the eyes, causing major damage to the eye structure.
Sunglasses are also a must, according to Taylor. But don’t be fooled into thinking the darker, the better. “It’s the sticker you peel off of the glasses when you buy them” that matters, she says. Sunglasses should have complete, 100 percent protection from UVA and UVB (long and short wave) rays. Ultraviolet radiation stimulates the issues that cause both cataracts and macular degeneration — common causes of blindness.
5. Working on a computer all day can give you dry eyes. This is in part because when we do things up close, we don’t blink as much, Taylor says. Paradoxically, one of the most common symptoms of dry eyes is an eye that waters, says Steven Loomis, OD, of Roxborough Park, Colorado, president of the American Optometric Association. The breakdown of the oily and mucous layers of the eyes keeps tears from evaporating, and the eye compensates by producing more water, he says. Having “tired eyes” at the end of the day is another symptom.
Dry eyes can also be caused by:
- Certain medications, including antidepressants
- Hormonal changes due to aging
For treatment, try the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look away for 20 seconds at something that is at least 20 feet away. A warm compress is another simple treatment, Dr. Loomis says, as are artificial tears — but not the ones that “get the red out,” since they can restrict blood to the tear glands. If these treatments aren’t effective, your doctor may prescribe a product like Restasis (cyclosporine) to cut down on inflammation.
6. Diabetes is the top cause of blindness in America. The best way to avoid diabetic retinopathy — the most common cause of blindness in the United States — is to prevent diabetes, if possible. Nearly all patients with type 1 diabetes develop this eye condition, as do about 60 percent of those with type 2 diabetes.
In diabetic retinopathy, the tiny blood vessels of the retina are damaged. While no symptoms appear during the early stages of the condition, it is critically important to catch retinopathy as soon as possible via regular eye exams. Over time, your vision can blur and lead to blindness. Controlling blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol can prevent the disease from getting worse, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Diabetic retinopathy may be treated by laser surgery, which can reduce the risk of further blindness. However, treatment cannot repair vision that is already lost.
7. After age 60, macular degeneration is a leading cause of blindness. Macular degeneration occurs when eye tissue degenerates, causing blurriness or loss of vision in the central part of the eye. There are two forms of macular degeneration: wet and dry. If vision loss is caused by fluid in the retina, the condition can be treated by injections in the eye. But most forms are dry, for which there is no treatment.
Risk factors for macular degeneration include a family history of the condition, smoking (which damages the eye’s blood vessels), a lack of lutein and zeaxanthin in the diet, and not protecting your eyes with sunglasses.
8. Cataracts are common, but treatment is very effective. Cataracts are a relatively normal part of the aging process and usually begin to appear around the age of 60. Symptoms can include blurred vision, faded colors, glare, reduced night vision, and double vision. Cataracts are associated with exposure to UV rays or radiation therapy, such as cancer treatment. Taking certain medications like prednisone can also increase the risk of cataracts, Loomis says. But cataract treatment, which includes replacing the damaged eye lenses with good ones, is typically very effective, he adds.
9. Damage to the eye’s optic nerve causes glaucoma. This common eye condition, Loomis says, is known for being silent and insidious. He often tells patients that the first sign of glaucoma is when a person can no longer see. Glaucoma is not something a patient can prevent or treat on his own, and the only way to detect it is through an eye exam, according to the NIH.
Glaucoma occurs when pressure builds up in the eye and begins to damage the optic nerve. The condition progresses very slowly, Loomis says, and it can take years for the nerve damage to become severe enough to cause vision problems.
The risk of getting glaucoma is higher for people who have a family history or are diabetic, Loomis says. For the majority of patients, treatment includes a once-daily eye drop that reduces pressure in the eye. If drops fail, surgery may be an option.
10. Your eyes reveal a lot about your health. The old saying goes that the eyes are the windows to the soul, but Taylor says they can also act as an indicator of a person’s overall health. If a patient comes into her office with dry eyes, she asks other health questions, since having dry eyes can be a marker of rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or thyroid disease. Patients who have blurry vision could have diabetes or a tumor, or may have had a stroke. People with itchy red eyes may have a contact lens allergy that they're unaware of. Taylor also recently diagnosed multiple sclerosis in a patient who had unusual eye movements.
It's true that following these steps is no guarantee of perfect vision throughout your lifetime. But maintaining a healthy lifestyle and having regular eye exams will certainly decrease your risk of developing a sight-stealing eye problem that otherwise might have been prevented.