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Caring for Your Eyes

Experts recommend eye exams every two to four years starting at age 40

En español | Steven Santos lost sight of the world gradually. The words in the daily newspaper became so blurry that his reading ritual stopped. While driving, he couldn’t read the street signs. “What was worse,” says the Manor, Texas, resident, “I couldn’t see if the light was red or green or yellow until I was right up on it.” He began driving only when necessary.

Santos, 44, had never had regular eye exams. But after experiencing these symptoms, he finally saw a doctor and was diagnosed with cataracts. He’s got his eyesight back now, thanks to outpatient surgery that replaced his clouded lenses with artificial ones.

Who Are Most Vulnerable to Eye Diseases?

By age 65, one in three Americans has some vision-impairing eye disease. Hispanics have higher rates than non-Hispanic whites of such sight-robbing diseases as glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy, which become much more common with aging. But like Santos, many Hispanics neglect caring for their eyes.

“Most patients who do not get regular health care—Hispanic or white or African American—also do not come in to get their eyes checked,” laments Sandra Lora Cremers, a Bolivian-born ophthalmologist at Harvard Medical School.

Glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness among Hispanics.

Experts recommend eye exams every two to four years starting at age 40 for people with no symptoms or special risk factors, since diseases such as cataracts and glaucoma start occurring at that age. More frequent exams should begin at 55. Seek an eye exam sooner if you notice any deterioration in vision. You could be suffering from cataracts, glaucoma, or diabetic retinopathy—conditions that, if caught in time, are often treatable.

Cataracts are the leading cause of low vision nationally, occurring in about 40 percent of people by age 70. Cataracts often produce a sensitivity to glare and blurred vision, forming a film over the normally transparent lens that focuses light within the eye. Corrective surgery, a nearly painless procedure usually performed on an outpatient basis, lasts under an hour and is the most frequently performed surgery in the United States. Nine out of 10 patients regain vision between 20/20 and 20/40.

Glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness among Hispanics, with Mexican Americans over age 65 being especially at risk. The most common form of glaucoma often begins with blurred vision. People tend to lose peripheral vision first and may suffer headaches from internal pressure in the eye, which can kill the nerve cells that transmit light. Medications can lower the pressure and prevent further damage.

Diabetic retinopathy, which involves changes to blood vessels in the retina, is the leading cause of blindness in people over age 20.

Diabetes is also, says Cremers, “the number one potentially preventable cause of blindness.” To forestall the progression of diabetic retinopathy, diabetics should get yearly eye exams and control their levels of blood sugar, blood pressure, and blood cholesterol.

How to Protect Your Eyesight?

In addition to regular eye exams, protect your vision by wearing sunglasses that block ultraviolet rays and using protective glasses while doing home improvements or handling chemicals. Avoid smoking and heavy alcohol consumption. Eating green leafy vegetables and other foods high in antioxidants may help.

Experts agree that staying healthy and getting regular eye exams may be the best way to keep your eyesight. That’s Santos’s new approach—and it’s working. He’s even considering a job sewing tiny stitches on inflatable “moonwalker” structures used at many children’s parties.

“I can see a lot of detail now that I’d lost,” Santos says. “Now I can get a better job.” 

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