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Simple Steps to Protect Your Eyes

Do this for healthy vision at every stage.

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Vision is one of our single most important senses, which makes our eyes a critical organ. Vision disability is one of the leading types of disability in adults and children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Our eyes are fragile and easily affected by our environment and overall health. “You name a medical diagnosis or a medication and it could potentially affect your eyes,” says Matthew Gorski, MD, ophthalmologist and assistant professor at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. Diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, thyroid disease, and even high blood pressure can cause problems from double vision to vision loss.

But there are simple steps you can take to protect your eye health:

Start in infancy

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, eye issues early in life may interfere with the ability of your eyes to send clear images to the brain, which could limit a child’s vision in ways that cannot be corrected later in life. Premature infants, for example, are at risk for numerous vision problems including strabismus (or “crossed eyes”) and retinopathy of prematurity (a disorder where blood vessels develop abnormally in the eye and can lead to blindness). Screening in early childhood can help identify any problems while they’re still easily corrected.

That’s why your first eye exams will likely happen in the pediatrician’s office. “Everyone has different risk factors,” Dr. Gorski says. “But a full-term, healthy infant will start with routine vision screenings during their regular well-child checkups. Potential eye problems will be flagged.”

After that, school-age kids should have visual acuity assessed regularly by their pediatrician or another healthcare provider, such as the school nurse.

Get annual checkups in your 20s and 30s

At your annual physicals in early adulthood, your primary care physician will perform routine eye exams and refer you to an eye specialist—either an ophthalmologist (a medical doctor who can perform eye surgery) or an optometrist (a healthcare provider who can examine the eyes and prescribe corrective lenses and eye drops) if a problem is detected. But people with diabetes, high blood pressure, or a family history of eye disease should see an eye specialist well before they turn 40 and have an annual eye exam.

See an eye specialist by 40

If you didn’t have any problems with your eyes through childhood and early adulthood, the next critical time to see an eye specialist is when you turn 40. At this point, the specialist will perform a dilated eye exam and check your visual acuity, how well your eyes move, and the structures of the eye such as the cornea, pupil, lens, and retina.

The specialist will also check the pressure inside your eyes. High pressure in the eye could be a sign of glaucoma, one of the leading causes of blindness in this country. Glaucoma is more common as you get older, Dr. Gorski says, and people with a family history of the disease, or those who have taken steroid medication for long periods or have illnesses such as diabetes and high blood pressure, are at a higher risk for glaucoma. Many people don’t know they have it until it has progressed significantly, eliminating peripheral vision and steadily narrowing vision. However, it is important to note that higher pressure in the eye does not automatically mean that you have or will develop glaucoma, Dr. Gorski says, nor does glaucoma always lead to blindness. Glaucoma is typically treated using eye drops, pills, or surgery to reduce pressure in the eye. Eye damage caused by glaucoma is permanent, but treatment can prevent further damage, so don’t be afraid to get screened.

In general, if all is well, plan to see an eye specialist every two years, recommends the American Academy of Ophthalmology, although your eye specialist may recommend more frequent visits depending on your exam results and medical history. In addition, Dr. Gorski suggests you pay attention to small things, such as frequent eye rubbing, which might indicate a problem with the eyes.

Older eyes need more attention

The older we get, the higher our risks of numerous age-related eye conditions, including cataracts (clouding of the clear, natural lenses inside our eyes), age-related macular degeneration (which occurs when the part of our eye responsible for clear, central vision is damaged), and glaucoma, all of which can lead to blindness. Chronic or inflammatory conditions (and the medication used to treat them) and hormonal changes can also affect the eyes. Other conditions, such as dry eyes, can be severe enough to degrade quality of life.

People older than 65 should get their eyes checked at least every year, and even more frequently if recommended by their doctor.

Eye health at every stage

A few precautions will help protect your eye health throughout your life:

Don’t smoke. Smoking can cause cataracts and macular degeneration, the leading causes of blindness. If you smoke, you may not notice the signs of these two conditions until they’re further along and harder to treat. Symptoms to watch for include blurred vision or the need for more light while reading or doing other tasks.

Wear your glasses, including sunglasses. Contrary to popular belief, wearing glasses will not make you more dependent on them, Dr. Gorski says. If you’ve been prescribed corrective lenses, make it a habit—they’ll help you see clearly. It’s also essential to wear sunglasses with UV protection because they help protect against cataracts and slow down their development.

Take a break from screens and books. Surprise! Whether it’s your phone or laptop, books or magazines, reading for prolonged periods of time can increase your risk of dry eye syndrome or eye strain, Dr. Gorski says. When reading for a long time, your brain actually tells your eyes not to blink as often to improve the focus for reading. If you don’t blink enough, the eyes can dry out. Take breaks. If you experience dry eye symptoms, such as redness, itching, burning or stinging, artificial tears can help.

Protect your eyes when you’re working and having fun. Always wear protective eye gear when working with tools or materials that can cause damage to your eyes. It can also be a good idea, especially for children, to wear protective eye gear when playing contact sports and using equipment such as bats, sticks, and rackets.

Don’t sleep or swim in your contact lenses—ever. While it seems like an easier option to just keep them in, wearing them overnight or when you swim can increase your risk of eye infections caused by bacteria, fungus, or other microbes, says Dr. Gorski. Sleeping in your contact lenses can also scratch the cornea and cause eye pain and redness or other problems that can damage your vision.

Get regular medical checkups and eat a healthy diet. A balanced diet with plenty of exercise can improve and protect eye health. Dark leafy greens and foods rich in vitamin C, beta carotene, and zinc are especially beneficial, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. And regular medical checkups will help identify and manage conditions that could affect eye health, keeping your vision in great shape.

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Published May 29th, 2019
A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

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