Focus on Healthier Eyes
A range of diseases threaten Americans’ vision, but you can avoid or treat many of these problems.
Blindness and other visual impairments are expected to rise sharply in coming years as the U.S. population ages—yet we can prevent or treat many of these cases.
The major causes of visual disability among U.S. adults include these diseases:
• Cataracts—Most common in older adults, this clouding of the eye’s lens can bring blurred vision and oversensitivity to glare from lights, especially when driving at night. Risk factors include diabetes, smoking, high alcohol intake, and exposure to ultraviolet sunlight.
• Diabetic retinopathy—Over time, the high blood sugar levels that afflict many people with diabetes can damage blood vessels in the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye. The result: blurred vision or seeing spots (“floaters”). Initially there may be no symptoms. Untreated diabetic retinopathy can lead to blindness.
• Glaucoma—A leading cause of U.S. vision loss, this group of diseases involves progressive damage to the eye’s optic nerve, which transmits visual signals to the brain. The most common form of glaucoma develops slowly and usually without symptoms, but a comprehensive eye exam can detect it.
• Age-related macular degeneration (AMD)—This disease gradually destroys the sharpness of your central vision. We rely on that part of vision for reading, driving, and seeing objects clearly. AMD harms the macula, the part of the eye that provides sharp central vision. Treatment can slow this vision loss.
Best Steps for Protection
You may be surprised to learn that much of the same advice you hear about preventing heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and lung disease also applies to protecting your vision. Some of the best things you can do to prevent or control disabling eye diseases include the following:
• Have periodic eye exams. A comprehensive evaluation is vital to early detection of problems that could lead to serious vision loss and blindness if left untreated. This is especially true if you have diabetes. Many eye diseases have no symptoms in their early stages, making eye exams critical.
• Control your blood sugar if you have diabetes. Very high blood sugar levels increase your risk for diabetic retinopathy. Controlling those levels through diet, exercise, medication, or other means can help you avoid diabetic retinopathy and serious vision loss.
• Keep blood lipids under control. In those with diabetes, high cholesterol may worsen the risk for diabetic retinopathy.
• Rein in high blood pressure. Hypertension raises the risk for vision problems and loss from a number of causes. There’s also strong link between higher blood pressure levels and diabetic retinopathy in people with type 2 diabetes.
• Quit smoking. Smoking is a major cause of heart disease and lung disease—and it has been linked to AMD, cataracts, and diabetic retinopathy.
• Limit exposure to ultraviolet light. UV light has been linked to increased risk for some kinds of cataracts. Wear sunglasses that offer UV protection and a hat with a brim to block sunlight.
• Adopt a healthy lifestyle. A healthy diet, regular exercise, and weight control can help prevent or manage diabetes (and its related vision threats) and may reduce your risk for AMD.
Your doctor can help you determine which risk factors you may need to address. He or she can also help you create a doable plan for managing those risks.
Even if you experience significant vision loss from an eye disease, there’s hope. Cataract surgery is one of the most common U.S. surgical procedures, as well as one of the safest and most effective. There are eye drops to control glaucoma, laser surgery for diabetic retinopathy, and photodynamic therapy for AMD, to name just a few treatments.
The best approach, however, is prevention. Since disease isn’t the only threat to your vision, remember to don safety glasses or goggles when your job or other activities demand eye protection. And follow a healthy lifestyle to keep your eyes healthy for life.