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Tips to protect your aging eyes

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Photograph é Darren Baker

Aging eyes bring more than crow's feet and wrinkles. It's what you can't see—the health of your eyes—that is the bigger concern, doctors say.

By the age of 40, many people may begin coping with vision problems they didn't have before. These might include dry eyes and presbyopia, or an inability to focus on objects that are close up, and can leave people feeling fatigued and headachy by the end of the workday. Genetics largely determines how our eyes age. But new research suggests that nutrition and environment can lessen some of the risks to eye health and vision.

TIPS FOR ALL AGES:

People who wear contacts should see an eye specialist yearly.

Get more frequent eye exams if you are diabetic or pre-diabetic.

Regular exercise promotes blood circulation and oxygen intake important for eye health.

Wear sunglasses—look for eye-sun protection factor between 25 and 50—when outside in the sun.

Rest up: During sleep, eyes are continuously lubricated and clear out irritants such as dust, allergens and smoke that accumulate during the day

 

TURNING POINTS
 

A look at what to do at what age for your eyes.

INFANTS: Eye exam at birth and again between 6 and 12 months.

PRESCHOOL: Get a visual acuity test between ages 3 and 3½. If the test shows misaligned eyes, lazy eye or refractive errors, such as nearsightedness, farsightedness or astigmatism, the child should see an eye doctor. It's important to treat these problems before age 7, when convergence, the ability of both eyes to focus on an object simultaneously, becomes more fully developed.

SCHOOL AGE: Eye screening should be done upon entering school and whenever a problem is suspected. Nearsightedness is the most common refractive error in this age group and can be corrected with eyeglasses.

TEENAGERS/20s: Vision development is complete by the time people reach their early 20s. It remains steady for several decades, and prescription lenses change only slightly or not at all. If you wear contact lenses, see your eye specialist yearly to check the prescription. Protect eyes while playing sports.

ADULTS UNDER 40: Since vision changes little, this is a good time for refractive or LASIK surgery. Get a complete eye exam once in the 20s and twice in 30s, but more often if you have family history of eye disease or wear contact lenses. Women may have vision fluctuations during pregnancy.

ADULTS 40 to 60: This is a time when symptoms of many eye diseases may begin to emerge. A comprehensive eye exam is recommended at age 40 to check for early signs of age-related macular degeneration and other problems. Most people will get presbyopia, an inability to focus on close-up objects, starting in their 40s, when the eye's lens gets less flexible.

65 AND UP: By age 65, 1 in 3 Americans will have a vision-impairing eye disease such as glaucoma and cataracts.Source: American Academy of Ophthalmology

As people get older, "The lens of your eye gradually loses the ability to focus in and out the way it used to," said Julia Haller, ophthalmologist-in-chief at Wills Eye Institute in Philadelphia. "Some people refuse to wear reading glasses…and really fight it. They may hold out a little longer but eventually we all succumb to the inevitable."

While we can't win against Mother Nature, some strategies can minimize the damage. Avoid self-prescribing with, say, off-the-shelf reading glasses sold at drugstores, says Gary Etting, an optometrist who specializes in vision therapy in Los Angeles. People often select glasses that appear to make things clearest, he said. 

But this may be a stronger prescription than they need, which can encourage their loss of focus to go faster.

Also, glasses you need for reading may be different than ones you need when using a computer, he said. "So people who wear their reading glasses on the computer can also be encouraging their eyes to weaken faster."

Scientists have been studying ways to prevent vision problems in young people, which also might help protect eyes as they age. 

Two studies published in the May issue of Ophthalmology, the journal of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, suggest that spending time outdoors may help minimize or prevent nearsightedness, or myopia, in children. Myopia can be corrected with glasses or contact lenses. But it can also be a precursor to severe myopia in adulthood, which is linked to the later development of eye disorders such as glaucoma and retinal detachment.

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