By the year 2050, an estimated 895 million people worldwide will have developed vision impairment, according to a report in The Lancet. That’s a 150 percent increase over the next 30 years. It’s estimated that by age 65, more than 90 percent of people have a cataract and that half of people between ages 75 and 85 have lost some vision due to a cataract. By age 80, 1 in 8 people have glaucoma, according to an Australian study. In the U.S., African Americans are at particularly high risk. Still, as ominous as these statistics sound, many vision problems can be treated — and in some cases prevented — by following some simple, healthy habits.
1. Wear sunglasses with ultraviolet (UV) protection
Our skin isn’t the only casualty of daily UV exposure. Those invisible rays up your chances of getting cataracts, a clouding of the eye lens that typically occurs with aging. Look for sunglasses with a label that says “100 percent protection against both UVA and UVB” or “100 percent protection against UV 400.”
“A dark lens that does not filter out the UV properly is actually worse than no lens at all,” says Andrea Thau, past president of the American Optometric Association and a New York City-based optometrist, “because that dark tint makes your pupil dilate and invites more UV radiation to enter the eye.” Also, look for glasses that have a uniform tint.
If you spend a lot of time outdoors, consider wraparound sunglasses that protect from UV rays that can sneak in around the sides of the sunglasses. If you’re in contact with airborne materials — by cutting wood, for instance, or mowing grass — consider safety glasses or protective goggles.
2. Eat right
Carrots may get all the press, but it’s those dark-green leafy vegetables (think spinach, kale, collard greens) that are vision-protecting powerhouses. They are full of the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin. Experts suggest these nutrients may block high-energy blue light, which can harm retinal cells, helping to protect vision and prevent the progression of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Eggs are another excellent source of lutein and zeaxanthin. Add more color to your plate with carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash and red bell peppers. These orange and red veggies are rich in beta-carotene, which the body uses to make vitamin A, which is essential for good vision.
There’s also evidence that omega-3 fatty acids — found in salmon, tuna and sardines — can increase oil production, helping to prevent dry eye. “Omega-3 supplements have also shown to be helpful,” says Davinder S. Grover, M.D., clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology and an ophthalmologist in Dallas. Not wild about seafood? Nibble on nuts, legumes or seeds.
If your diet is missing key vitamins or nutrients, or if you have a diagnosed deficiency, ask your doctor about supplements. Research has shown that a specific kind of high-dose dietary supplement, called AREDS, may be beneficial in patients with intermediate age-related macular degeneration, slowing its progression and preventing it from turning to late AMD.
Couch potatoes, take note. A Swedish study, published in the journal Ophthalmology, examined a possible link between specific types of physical activity, including walking, and a reduced risk of age-related cataracts in 52,660 participants between the ages of 45 and 83. Hoofing it more than 60 minutes a day — versus hardly ever — was associated with a decreased risk of cloudy lenses. Conversely, high inactivity levels may be associated with an increased risk. Another eye-opener: According to research from the University of California Los Angeles, brisk walking may also lower your risk of getting glaucoma, with the most active among us having a 73 percent lower risk than the least active.
The benefits may be two-fold. First, exercise is believed to decrease your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, all of which can contribute to cataracts. Cardio may also lower intraocular pressure (the pressure in your eyes), increasing blood flow to the retina and optic nerve. To achieve vision-boosting effects, you don’t have to break much of a sweat: IOP can be lowered with a brisk, 20-minute walk a minimum of four times a week.
4. Get the right amount of sleep
Yes, bloodshot eyes and puffy lids can be the unattractive consequences of a lack of shut-eye, but not getting enough rest can play havoc with our eye health, too. Sleep is the time when fluids circulate and hydrate your eyes, refreshing them for the next day. Get less than five hours of slumber a night and you may experience side effects ranging from light sensitivity and blurred vision to dry eye and involuntary twitches (known as myokymia) that occur when the muscles around the eyes are not getting enough rest.
5. Give your eyes a break
If you’re staring at a computer screen or doing another task that requires visual concentration, take frequent breaks to give your eyes a rest. Try the 20-20-20 rule: Look away from the screen every 20 minutes, focusing on something 20 feet in the distance for at least 20 seconds. “Get into the habit of blinking every few seconds,” says Thau. “Make sure that your upper and lower lids are truly touching, not a halfway blink.” This will help spread a fresh layer of tears over the surface of your eyes.
Glare can strain eyes, making it difficult to see objects on your monitor. Consider turning off some of the overhead light or placing an anti-glare cover over the screen. Keep the screen about an arm’s length away, and make sure it’s at the right height. “Our eyes do best when the top of the monitor is at eye level and we’re looking down into the screen,” says Thau. You won’t have to open your eyes wide when viewing the screen.
6. Practice good eye hygiene
No matter how tired you may be, remove all traces of eye makeup before bed to prevent morning-after irritation. “Makeup can clog your oil glands, and when they’re clogged they are not producing oil,” says Nichole Moos, an optometrist affiliated with VSP Vision Care. “Tears evaporate, and that also drives dry eyes and inflammation.” Clean and gently massage your lids at the base of the lashes with a washcloth and baby shampoo (or a mild cleanser like Cetaphil), diluted with warm water, to loosen any debris that’s collected around the lids during the day. Even better, pick up a package of pre-moistened lid wipe or an over-the-counter scrub designed for lids and lashes, such as OCuSOFT.
And don’t let your makeup hang around for too long. Preservatives can break down, allowing bacteria to grow — leading to irritation or, worse, a nasty infection. Many cosmetics have an expiration date or a period-after-opening (PAO) symbol, which tells you how long a product is safe to use after it’s been opened. But remember, a product can go bad before it reaches that date. If something seems “off” with the formula — say, a funky smell or a change in consistency or color — toss it immediately.
People who wear contact lenses need to be especially careful about keeping them clean. Dirty lenses can cause eye infections, so clean them nightly, then rinse them using a sterile saline solution before inserting them in eyes. (In one eye-opening survey, contact wearers admitted using lemonade, beer and butter to clean their lenses!) Rub the lens gently with your index finger in the palm of your other hand to remove surface buildup, then let it air dry. And don’t forget to wash and dry your hands thoroughly before handling those tiny pieces of plastic. Your contact lens case should be replaced every three months.
7. Get regular eye exams
“We recommend a general eye exam every one to two years,” says Merina Thomas, M.D., a retina specialist and ophthalmologist at Oregon Health & Science University. “If you have a family history of eye disease, especially glaucoma or MD, you should get an eye exam once a year.”
However, a Harris/AAO survey found that while almost 70 percent of adults see a primary care physician or family medicine doctor regularly, just 52 percent of those polled see some type of eye care professional on a regular basis. That’s problematic, since age-related eye diseases — such as cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma and macular degeneration — are more treatable if diagnosed and treated early. “The most silent common blinder of losing sight without any symptoms is glaucoma,” says Grover. “It’s asymptomatic and a silent thief of vision. But when caught early and treated appropriately, it’s highly preventable.”
The benefits of an appointment with your ophthalmologist or optometrist go well beyond keep your eyes in working order. A close inspection of the lens, retina and optic nerve can reveal a host of systemic disorders — high blood pressure and diabetes, among them — sometimes before there are any other symptoms.
8. Keep eyes well moisturized
Tears do more than send us running for the Kleenex after a viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life. They lubricate our eyes, keeping them healthy and helping our vision stay crystal clear. Dry eye happens when eyes aren’t getting adequate lubrication. It could be that they aren’t producing enough tears (after age 50, tear production tends to decline) or that the tears they do produce are of poor quality and evaporate too quickly. Some medical conditions (for example, rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes) and certain medications (including antihistamines and blood pressure meds) can also trigger dry eye. You may experience a stinging or burning sensation or gritty feeling in your eyes — or, ironically, watery eyes (that dryness prompts glands to produce more tears).
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For mild symptoms, artificial tears, or lubricating eye drops, supplement tear production and keep the outer surface of the eyes moist and comfortable. You can buy them over the counter and use them as needed. Artificial tears with low viscosity are watery and offer fast, temporary relief. That soothing effect won’t last long, so you have to use them frequently. Artificial tears with high viscosity have a thicker, gel-like consistency. They stick around on the surface of the eye longer and provide longer-lasting lubrication. Typically, they blur your vision for several minutes after you apply them, so they are recommended for bedtime use, to moisturize eyes while you sleep. People who suffer from severe, long-term symptoms might consider topical prescription drops, which target the underlying cause of dryness and help increase tear production.
Simply drinking more water may also keep your eyes better lubricated. Omega-3 fish oil supplements, in the triglyceride form, may also help ease symptoms, says Moos, who also suggests applying a warm compress to closed eyes for 10 minutes to soften and unclog the oil glands along the lids. Another suggestion: Up the humidity in the air at home by sleeping with a humidifier next to your bed.
9. Watch your glucose levels
People with diabetes — type 1 or type 2 — are at risk for a disease called diabetic retinopathy, in which consistently elevated blood-sugar levels damage the blood vessels in the retina, the thin layer of tissue at the back of your eye. In its early stages, you may not even know you have it. But as it worsens, your vision takes a hit. It may fluctuate between clear and blurry. You may get floaters, poor night vision, dark or empty areas in your vision, or colors that appear faded. Left unchecked, it can lead to vision loss.
Following a healthy diet is key. That means cutting out sugar and refined carbs — and, yes, staying away from processed foods. Following the Mediterranean diet — lean proteins, such as chicken and fish, non-starchy vegetables and fruit — is ideal. And watch your weight. Carrying excess pounds, especially in the abdominal area, can promote insulin resistance.
10. Don’t smoke
If you’ve had trouble kicking your smoking habit, use these facts for motivation: You are two to three times more likely to develop cataracts and twice as likely to develop AMD as a nonsmoker. “If you have early signs of age-related macular degeneration, smoking increases the risk of it progressing tenfold,” says Thomas. “It can get much worse much more quickly.” Why? Among other reasons, cigarettes contain hundreds of toxins that can cause oxidative stress and prevent proper blood flow from reaching the eye. And that irritating smoke can damage the tear film, increasing your risk of dry eye (not to mention the many other health problems associated with smoking).
Barbara Stepko is a longtime health and lifestyle writer, and former editor at Women’s Health and InStyle. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Parade and other national magazines.