Eyes are literally our windows to the world, but few people take the time to care for the body part that imparts the precious gift of sight. There are many easy ways to treat your eyes with the respect they deserve. Dr. Scott Greenstein, an ophthalmologist at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, offers these suggestions to keep your eyes healthy:
1) Get an Eye Exam, No Matter Your Age
Seeing an ophthalmologist is not just for people who already have glasses. Greenstein recommends all children get a full eye exam before beginning kindergarten and every few years after.
Adults also should get their eyes checked, even if there is not an obvious problem.
"There are many people that think if they can see reasonably well, that’s the end of the story," he says. "They may have some ophthalmic condition that’s undiagnosed." Other conditions, such as headaches, may be due to a vision impairment that is forcing the eye to strain.
And while eye damage has many causes, Greenstein says, computer screens are not one of them. "There is no evidence that you can over use your eyes," he says. Eyestrain from staring at a screen is not a disorder that causes any anatomical or structural damage; however, eyestrain may be due to other problems, so if there is any change in vision or change to the eye, he recommends seeing an ophthalmologist.
For anyone who purchases over-the-counter eyeglasses, that is also a good reason to visit an ophthalmologist. While not harmful, OTC glasses cannot correct for a stigmatism or differences between each eye. After the age of 60, people should make yearly visits as cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration become much more common.
2) Wear Sunglasses
It may seem obvious, but "if you spend any time outdoors, you should wear a hat and sunglasses," Greenstein says. This is not just an issue of comfort.
Studies have shown that repeated sun exposure could increase incidence of cataracts, which cause cloudy vision as well as macular degeneration, a condition that reduces vision in the central part of the retina.
Obviously, the bigger the lens, the more of the eye is protected, but any style with ultra violet protection is sufficient. For those looking for maximum protection, Greenstein noted yellow and orange tinted lenses have been shown in some studies to absorb the wavelength of light that increases the risk for cataracts and macular degeneration.
But if the idea of a lemon-tinted world turns you green, that’s fine, he says. The best protection from sunglasses comes from having a pair you will want to wear for any and all sun exposure.
3) Manage Your Diabetes
Diabetic retinopathy is a condition where high blood sugar damages blood vessels behind the retina. That blood then can leak out into the retina, causing vision problems. Anyone with type 1 or type 2 diabetes should receive an annual eye exam. "Poor [blood sugar] control increases your risk, and better control lowers your risk," Greenstein explained. Even so, diabetics who are controlling their blood sugar still can develop eye problems.
4) Eye Protection: Not Just for Welders
Many high-risk occupations, such as welding, require eye protection because the cornea can be severely burned from a stray spark. Greenstein says he also has seen that same degree of damage from skiers who were not wearing goggles.
Besides skiing, the backyard can be a potential danger zone for eyes. Weed whackers and lawnmowers can send debris flying, and even raking or pruning can shoot a stray branch into the cornea. Not only should goggles be worn for a range of gardening activities, Greenstein says, but also for racquetball, squash and even basketball, which can produce many fingers straight into the eye.
5) Carrots Are Not Enough
Despite dinner time advice dished out by parents, eating fruits and vegetables will not save or enhance your vision, according to Greenstein. For some people with unhealthy optic nerves or a very dry cornea, diet can make a difference, but those cases are rare.
That does not mean that a balanced and varied diet of fruits and vegetables will not contribute to eye and overall health. A balanced diet, for instance, is key to controlling diabetes, which can cause eye damage.
For certain macular degeneration patients, vitamins A, C, E and zinc have been shown to reduce the risk and severity of this condition. But for the majority of macular degeneration patients, Greenstein cautioned, a supplement of these vitamins will not cause any harm — but will also not improve vision.
More important than diet, he says, is to stop smoking, which increases the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration.
6) Take Your Contacts Out
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves some contacts for "extended wear," that is not a free pass to leave them in as long as you want, Greenstein says. Leaving contacts in too long, especially overnight, can lead to infection. "Even if it is approved for extended wear," he says, "I do not recommend it."
7) Check Your Medication
Flomax, a medication for male urinary symptoms due to benign prostatic hyperplasia, can complicate cataract surgery, Greenstein noted, and men should consider whether they are going to need cataract surgery before beginning this medication.
Prednisone, a synthetic corticosteroid drug used to treat a range of autoimmune diseases, also has been shown to increase the risk for glaucoma and cataracts when taken for long periods of time. It is best to tell your ophthalmologist about any medications you are taking at each visit.
8) Do Not Wait to Get Cataract Surgery
Greenstein says many patients who have a cataract wait years after an initial diagnosis to get surgery because they are waiting for the cataract to be "ripe," but "The longer you wait, the higher the risk to get it out," he says. "The eye is not a piece of fruit."
Cataract surgery has a very low complication rate, and anyone with this condition should discuss whether surgery is an appropriate option with his or her ophthalmologist.