It’s easy to take our eyes for granted.
Because they’re not like faces or teeth that need a scrub in the morning, most of us do little besides open our peepers to take in the sights. Still, eyes need attention and care to stay healthy. Low vision or blindness affects 3.3 million Americans age 40 and over, and that number is expected to reach 5.5 million by 2020, according to the Archives of Ophthalmology.
Here are tips for keeping your eyes and vision in shape.
Have regular eye exams. From age 18 to 60, get an eye exam every two years. At age 60 and older, see the eye doctor yearly, says Dr. William Trattler, an ophthalmologist at the Center for Excellence in Eye Care in Miami, Fla. The exam should include a standard eye chart test; an eye pressure test to detect glaucoma, a disease that damages the optic nerve and that, untreated, can lead to blindness; and pupil dilation to examine your retinas for signs of diseases such as diabetic retinopathy—damage to the small blood vessels in the retina. The doctor also will test your range of vision and your pupils’ reaction to light.
Eye exams can be conducted either by an optometrist, a health care professional trained to examine, diagnose and treat the eye, or an ophthalmologist, a physician who specializes in both medical and surgical care of eyes.
Wear sunglasses. Choose sunglasses that block 100 percent of ultraviolet rays, which can lead to eye or eyelid cancer, an inflamed cornea, or cataracts, a cloudy covering over the eye’s lens that often develops in adults over age 60. And get out your broad-rimmed hat to help shield eyes from the sun, says Dr. Susan Resnick, an optometrist in New York City. If you wear contact lenses, get ones that have UV inhibitors, which also block UV rays.
Wear safety goggles. Calling woodworkers, metalsmiths, racquetball players and weekend warriors: Put goggles on before you plug in machines or get the ball bouncing. “Any time objects could fly, wear goggles,” Trattler says.
If you’re diabetic, control your blood sugar. “That is the most critical component to preventing retinal damage from diabetes,” Resnick says. Also, see an eye doctor at least yearly, and ask your doctor to test your A1C ratio—a measure of the amount of sugar in your blood over a three-month period; diabetics should aim for a reading below 7.0, Resnick says.
Never sleep in your contacts. “If you do, the risk for infections increases twentyfold,” Trattler says. “When you sleep in your contacts, there’s a lack of oxygen to the cornea, which can damage the eye’s surface and lead to infection.”
Eat an eye-healthy diet. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, especially dark green, leafy vegetables. Fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants and the nutrient lutein, which may help prevent macular degeneration, a disease of the retina that can result in loss of central vision; they may help prevent cataracts as well. Also, eat fatty fish, such as salmon, at least twice a week. “They contain omega-3 fatty acids that also protect against macular degeneration,” Trattler says.
For extra protection, you can take a daily multivitamin that contains lutein and a daily omega-3 fatty acid supplement, following package dose recommendations. Ask your doctor if these supplements would be beneficial.
Quit smoking. “Smoking is a primary risk factor for macular degeneration,” Resnick says. Clogged blood vessels become more likely too, possibly blocking blood to the eye—a kind of stroke that can lead to blindness. Smoking also damages blood vessels, including those that nourish eye tissues and nerves, and is associated with dry eye, a condition that decreases the tear fluid protecting your eyes.
Take a computer break. “People staring at a computer don’t blink as much as usual, and that can lead to dry eye, blurry vision and fatigue,” Trattler says. The solution: Slip away from your computer every hour or two for a few minutes so your blink rate goes back to normal.
Don’t rub. It hurts to get debris in your eyes. But rubbing can damage the eye’s surface, says Trattler. “Instead, flush your eye with water and see your eye doctor.”