How to Preserve Your Precious Eyesight As You Get Older10 months ago | Eye Health
By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder
If you’re like most women, you’re probably religious about getting your annual physical. You’re probably also very good about making sure to get a mammogram, colonoscopy or a dental exam on a regular basis. If you do, then my hat goes off to you for being so proactive about protecting your health.
Now, look again at the list of exams I mentioned. Did you notice anything missing?
Like the vast majority of Americans, you most likely didn’t catch that I didn’t include an annual vision and eye exam. Unfortunately, according to some reports, up to 85 percent of people with some type of eye disease or vision problem overlook (no pun intended) this critical exam.
Other studies suggest that up to 6 million of us have never – yes, never – had our eyes examined. It’s almost as if, as one researcher put it, that we forgot that “our eyes are part of our bodies, too.” This is pretty amazing considering that almost half of all Americans say eyesight is the sense they worry the most about losing!
While the annual eye exam and taking care of our eyes in general is important for everyone, it is especially critical for us boomer women since we are more susceptible to age-related eye diseases and vision problems.
And there are two reasons for this...
- One is that we tend to live longer than men.
So this means we have more years for these diseases to take hold and threaten our eyesight.
- Two is that the hormonal changes we go through during menopause can have a negative impact on our eye health.
Let’s explore all of this further...
Our eyes change as we age.
As with our bodies’ other systems, our eyes start showing signs of age at around 40 or so. This is when many of us begin to have problems reading, driving at night or working at our computers without some sort of discomfort or having to use corrective lenses. It is also usually when we start noticing that our eyes are watering more than they did before, that it takes a little longer to adjust to the dark and that our eyelids may be drooping a little.
Most of these are what I would place in the “inconvenience” category since they can be easily corrected with glasses, contact lenses, taking a little extra time when moving in or out of light and accepting the cosmetic signs of aging as badges of honor.
What are not just inconveniences, however, are eye diseases that can negatively impact our vision and, in extreme situations, make us blind.
These diseases are far more common than you may think.
In fact, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, more than 43 million Americans will develop some form of age-related eye disease by 2020. We can take steps to not be one of these statistics, or if we are diagnosed with them at some point we can better manage them and protect our precious sight. This is especially important since many eye diseases have no symptoms in their early stages.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the following are the most common eye diseases affecting older women:
- Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD): The leading cause of blindness among boomers. Vision loss is caused by the deterioration of the central portion of the retina, known as the macula, according to the American Macular Degeneration Foundation. The macula is responsible for focusing central vision in the eye. It controls your ability to read, drive, recognize faces or colors and see finer details. This disease is painless and usually has no symptoms at first, so early detection is key since, with treatment, it can be stopped or slowed. The greatest risk factor, unfortunately, is getting older.
- Cataracts: This well-known eye problem is so common that by age 80, more than half of us will either have a cataract or will have had cataract surgery. As women, we are slightly more prone to cataracts than men. Cataracts are cloudy or opaque areas in the lens of our eye (which is usually clear and transparent) that can lead to blindness or glaucoma (see below) if not treated. Cataract surgery has advanced dramatically to where, in most cases, it is an outpatient procedure that can leave you with even better vision than you had before the surgery! You may also find it interesting that cataract surgery is the most frequently performed surgery in the U.S.
- Glaucoma: A very stealth disease – it is known as “the silent thief of sight” – with few early symptoms, it results from too much pressure in your eyes. This, in turn, can lead to permanent vision loss and blindness. In fact, it is the second leading cause of blindness in the U.S. As our population ages, estimates are that up to the number of Americans with glaucoma this will increase by some 50 percent. If you have a family history of glaucoma, have diabetes, are a boomer or are African-American, you have a higher risk of developing this disease. Be sure to always be tested for glaucoma during your annual eye exam. If detected early, glaucoma can be controlled with medical treatment or surgery.
- Dry Eye: As women, we unfortunately suffer more from this eye disease than do our male counterparts due, in part, to changes in our bodies after menopause. It is more than an inconvenience, given that it is chronic and not taking care of it (usually with drops) can impact our vision. Some studies also suggest that if you had an early menopause, you may be more prone to this condition.
- Another disease to know about is Diabetic Retinopathy. As the name implies, this disease occurs in people with diabetes and approximately 40 percent of diagnosed diabetics have some degree of retinopathy. It is the result of progressive damage to the tiny blood vessels in the retina. Twenty-five percent or more of us have diabetes and many of us do not even know we have it. It’s important to know whether or not you have diabetes or prediabetes and take steps to manage it. Your eyesight literally can depend upon it.
How to be proactive about your eye health?
The first, and most important, thing to do to protect your eye health is to check your calendar to see when you last had a comprehensive eye exam. If it has been more than a year, make an appointment and be sure to keep it. You can get this exam at a wide variety of places, including an eye doctor, the eye department of a medical clinic, a group eye care practice (that usually has both optometrists and ophthalmologists), an optical retailer and even, in many cases, your local big-box retail store. At the latter, you can even get your eyes checked when you go to buy groceries. How convenient is that?
No matter where you get your exam, be sure it includes the following:
- Pupil dilation to examine the interior of the eye
- Evaluation of the outside of the eye
- Your family medical history
- Test of your distance and near vision (reading the famous eye chart)
- Seeing how well your eyes work together “as a team”
- Eye pressure test to see if you have or are developing glaucoma
Experts recommend that baby boomers get an eye exam every year. You may need to have them more frequently if you have a family history of eye disease, have high blood pressure or diabetes or take medications that may affect your eyes. Talk with your eye doctor or optometrist and follow their recommendation.
Your lifestyle also has a lot to do with your eye health – and your overall health in general – so be sure to make decisions that will help protect your eyes. These include:
- Not smoking and avoiding second-hand smoke. Smoking increases your risk for cataracts, AMD, hypertension and diabetic retinopathy.
- Eating a healthy and balanced diet with the majority of your foods being fresh fruits and vegetables (especially green leafy vegetables) given their nutritional value. Also try to prepare most of your food so that you know what you’re eating!
- Getting enough exercise. In addition to promoting eye health in general – especially its role in preventing AMD and glaucoma – exercise also helps reduce your risk for hypertension, diabetes and prediabetes, cholesterol, heart disease, osteoporosis and depression (as boomer women, we have a higher risk for all of them).
- Getting your nutrient levels checked to make sure your body has enough of those nutrients that are relevant for your eyes in the right balance. These include:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
You can find high amounts of these nutrients in whole, plant-based foods such as grapefruit, pine nuts, spinach and zucchini. And don’t forget we get most of our vitamin D from sunlight and that herbs and spices, like basil and parsley, are very nutrient-rich as well.
- Have your doctor test you for hypertension and diabetes or prediabetes. If you already have any of these conditions, be sure to follow your doctor’s recommendation on how to best manage them. Your eye health and vision depend on it!
- Be aware of any abrupt changes in your eyesight and call your eye doctor immediately if you have any changes.
- Protect your eyes from the sun by investing in a good pair of sunglasses with 100 percent UV protection (and don’t just use them during the summer).
- Stay hydrated. Remember that your eyes are between 98 percent and 99 percent water!
We only have one pair of eyes and with some care, we can help ensure that we have vision for life. So, get your annual eye check-up, make the required lifestyle changes and you’ll be doing what you can to ensure healthy vision for many years to come.
Enjoy your healthy life!
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