According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as many as 21 million Americans experience some type of vision problem; and 80 million Americans have eye diseases that can lead to blindness. People with vision loss are more likely to experience depression, diabetes, stroke, falls, and even premature death.
Refractive errors are the most common eye problems in the US and can affect both children and adults. These vision errors include myopia (near-sightedness), hyperopia (farsightedness), and astigmatism (distorted vision at all distances). Presbyopia often begins around age 40-50 years; it is characterized by the inability to focus up close, such as difficulty reading the newspaper or seeing the computer screen.
These errors are diagnosed by an eye care practitioner and can be corrected through eyeglasses, contact lenses, or LASIK surgery (a procedure that permanently changes the shape of the cornea).
Adult Eye Diseases
A cataract occurs when there is dimming of the eye’s lens that negatively impacts vision. The risk of cataract increases with age, but younger people can have cataracts as well. Additional risk factors include diabetes, smoking, alcohol use, and prolonged exposure to sunlight.
An early cataract can be treated with new eyeglasses, brighter lighting, anti-glare sunglasses, or magnifying lenses. However, if these steps do not help, surgery may be necessary to remove the cloudy lens and replace it with an artificial lens.
Glaucoma (a group of diseases) usually occurs when the fluid pressure inside the eyes rises. This increase in pressure damages the eye’s optic nerve, which can result in vision loss and blindness. Early detection and treatment of glaucoma is crucial; therefore, it is important to get regular eye exams.
The term diabetic eye disease describes a group of eye problems that can affect people with diabetes complications. These eye problems include diabetic retinopathy (DR), as well as cataracts and glaucoma, all of which can lead to severe vision loss or blindness. Diabetes increases the risk of these eye problems. The best way to prevent DR is with sound diabetes management that includes controlling blood sugar and blood pressure, and maintaining a healthy body weight through nutrition and physical activity.
Preventing Eye Problems
Many eye problems can be avoided by taking action to promote eye health. Here are some helpful tips from the CDC’s Vision Health Initiative:
- Get a comprehensive dilated eye exam. Many people do not realize they have vision problems. In addition, many common eye diseases, such as DR, cataracts, and glaucoma, often have no warning signs. Therefore, early detection of eye problems through a comprehensive dilated eye exam is crucial. During this type of exam, an eye care practitioner puts drops in the eyes to dilate the pupil. This process allows more light to enter the eye, which allows the eyes to be more closely examined.
- Know your family’s eye health history. Find out if you are at risk for certain health conditions or eye diseases that are hereditary (e.g., diabetes and glaucoma).
- Eat nutritiously and maintain a healthy body weight. Maintaining a healthy diet is important to overall health and helps prevent chronic diseases such as diabetes. Certain foods are considered to be especially important to eye health, such as fruits, vegetables (particularly leafy greens), and fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids (e.g., salmon and tuna).
- Wear protective eyewear. Protect your eyes when playing sports or participating in activities such as mowing or woodworking and in the workplace. Use caution with household chemicals and sprays, which can severely damage the eyes.
- Do not smoke; or if you smoke, quit. Smoking increases the risk of developing a variety of eye problems, such as cataracts, DR, and age-related macular degeneration (thinning of the retina).
- Wear sunglasses year-round. UV rays from the sun or bright lights can cause inflammation of the cornea. Long-term exposure can damage the retina. Wear sunglasses that block 99-100 percent of both UVA and UVB rays.
- Rest your eyes. To prevent or reduce eyestrain, remember to blink and take regular time-outs when focusing on a specific object (e.g., a computer or smart phone screen).
- Clean your hands and contact lenses properly. Always wash your hands before handling your contact lenses. Be sure to properly disinfect contact lenses, and replace them as necessary.
How to Find an Eye Care Practitioner
Regular eye exams are recommended for all adults, especially those with chronic health conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure. There are different ways you can locate a professional who provides eye care, including asking your health care provider, family members, friends, and co-workers for recommendations; contact a local hospital or university medical center that houses a department of ophthalmology or optometry.
Contact a professional association of ophthalmologists or optometrists (see Resources); and Check your health insurance plan to see whether eye care practitioners are listed.
EdD, CHES, FASHA, IC®
American Academy of Ophthalmology, eyeSmart®, www.geteyesmart.org/eyesmart
American Optometric Association, www.aoa.org
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vision Health Initiative, www.cdc.gov/visionhealth/index.htm
National Eye Institute, www.nei.nih.gov
Prevent Blindness America, www.preventblindness.org