We go to the gym, abstain from chocolate cake and drink gallons of water all in the name of good health. But what can we do to protect those most valuable organs—our eyes? We talked to ophthalmology experts to find out what we should be doing to preserve the oft-neglected eyes.
“Eyes are delicate and precious,” says Dr. Andrew Iwach, spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). “Just a touch of maintenance will keep them going for years.”
- Regular checkups. When was the last time you had an eye exam? If it was at 3 years of age, chances are you’re due. The AAO recommends an eye exam before 5 years of age to check for childhood problems like amblyopia (sometimes called lazy eye) or strabismus (misaligned eyes), and then on an as-needed basis (vision problems or injuries) up to 19 years of age. One exam in your 20s, and two in your 30s can identify problems which may benefit from early treatment. While it’s normal for vision to change with age, serious eye problems like glaucoma and macular degeneration (deterioration of retina that causes loss of detail vision) can be treated if detected early. So step up the eye exams after 40 years of age to every two to four years; after age 65, every one to two years. Anyone with diabetes, a family history of eye problems or African-Americans over the age of 40 should check with their doctor about more frequent visits. (African-Americans may need more frequent checkups in middle age because of an increased risk for glaucoma.)
- SPF for the eyes. Sunglasses don’t just prevent crows’ feet from squinting, they also block harmful ultraviolet and other rays than can play a role in the development of cataracts and macular degeneration. Fair-skinned caucasians are at the greatest risk for the latter. Be sure your sunglasses have 100 percent UV protection. “The blue wavelengths--violet and blue--hit the retina,” says Dr. Lylas Mogk, co-author of Macular Degeneration: The Complete Guide to Saving and Maximizing Your Sight. “The best filters against blue are in the amber-orange-brown range of commercial sunglasses.” You should always wear sunglasses when outside (and not just in the summer) but especially in high glare areas around snow or water. A wide-brimmed hat is great for blocking rays—even if it counteracts the cool of your aviators.
- Eye protection. Sunglasses aren’t the only protective eyewear you should don. Obviously anyone working around construction, manufacturing—any job with machinery and flying particles—must wear eye protection. But even when you’re working around the house, you should guard your eyes. “Even while hanging a picture, plaster or a nail can fly into your eye,” warns Dr. Iwach. Any hardware store sells inexpensive clear plastic eye protection.
- Contact care. “Contacts are a great tool, but they come with responsibility,” says Dr. Iwach. Be sure to have a pair of glasses with a recent prescription so that if you get any irritation you can change over. Wearing your contacts when your eyes are irritated can turn a simple problem (irritation) into a significant problem (a corneal ulcer). Make sure you care for the lenses properly. “I can’t believe people who pop a lens in their mouth and then put it in their eye. That is not a good idea unless you want to be seeing the eye doctor a lot,” warns Dr. Iwach. Make sure your solutions aren’t expired, keep your contacts clean—and keep them out of your mouth.
- Eye candy. Are carrots really good for your eyes? “Carrots are rich in vitamin A, which the retina needs,” says Dr. Lylas Mogk. “But we’re not in danger of having vitamin A deficiencies.” Green leafy veggies like kale, collard and mustard greens, and spinach are good for the eyes because they contain lutein, which studies indicate can reverse symptoms of macular degeneration. And getting plenty of omega-3 fatty acids from fish and flax can help prevent dry eyes. But avoid omega-6 fatty acids, which is tricky in the American diet. Omega-6s are in vegetable oils. “There are very few processed or packaged foods that don’t have vegetable oils,” notes Dr. Mogk. “And the omega-6s counteract the good omega-3s.”
- Eye lube. As we age, we experience more dry eye symptoms. “The biggest reason people have dry eyes is that the tear film doesn’t have the right consistency of water, mucus and oil,” says Dr. Mogk. The oil part of your tears comes from little glands at the margin of your eyelids. As you blink, oil is supposed to coat the eyes. But if this coating is insufficient, the tear film evaporates and eyes feel dry. This triggers reflex tearing, which is why your eyes water when they get dry and irritated. Omega-3 helps with this. Also, heat and air conditioning can cause dry eyes, especially if you sit near a vent or fan unit. Make sure that the vent in your car isn’t blowing toward your face.
- Quit smoking. Need another reason to quit smoking? You got it: Smoking increases the risk and accelerates the development of cataracts, macular degeneration and optic nerve damage. “I’d be more afraid of losing your vision than lung cancer,” says Dr. Iwach.
- Eye strain. Any focused work means you don’t blink as frequently. And all the computer work and internet surfing can take a toll. It’s always good to take a break from activities which involve prolonged staring. And artificial tears can help reduce eye irritation, lubricating the eyes to help you work longer.
- Talk to your family. Eye problems are often hereditary. If you are diagnosed with glaucoma or another eye condition, share that information with your immediate and extended family. “It’s a way to give the gift of vision for the rest of their life,” notes Dr. Iwach. The sooner people are diagnosed, the more that can be done to treat and prevent further damage.
- Stay healthy. We’ve already seen how eating right (veggies over processed foods) helps with eye health. Exercise increases circulation, which can lower pressure within the eyes, which helps with those who have glaucoma. Getting regular overall physicals may lead to early detection of diseases like diabetes or other systemic conditions that can lead to eye problems. And most important, if something bothers you or feels wrong, get it checked out. As Dr. Iwach puts it, “You get your oil checked regularly, so get your eyes checked regularly.”
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