The State of the Nation Eye Health? Good in parts

The eyes may be the window to the soul, but when did you give yours a second thought? Fortunately, long gone are the days where being short-sighted meant wearing spectacles with lenses that looked like the bottom of a pair of milk bottles.

Yet despite the fact that eye checks can get you seeing again, as well as preventing sight-threatening problems, 13.8 million people in the UK don't get regular eye checks every two years.

The State of the Nation Eye Health is a new report from the RNIB and Specsavers, and it highlights some worrying statistics. More than two million people in the UK live with sight loss that has a real impact on their ability to function.

Sometimes it's as simple as not seeking help from an optician - about six million people in the UK have uncorrected refractive problems (correctable with glasses) or potentially sight-threatening problems. In fact, half of sight problems are preventable.

While everyone knows opticians can check your vision and prescribe glasses or contact lenses to correct refraction errors, awareness of their other roles is patchy. In fact, 93% of people agree regular eye testing could save sight, but one in five don't know that opticians can check for glaucoma, cataract or retinal damage caused by diabetes. Over a third of people have no idea opticians can detect some tumours and nearly three in five are unaware that high blood pressure can cause eye changes an optician can pick up.

Glaucoma is a case in point. It causes raised pressure inside the eyeball which may not give rise to any symptoms for years. That means you won't know you've got it unless you you're your eyes checked. However, if pressure reaches a critical level, it can cause a sudden crisis of pain, red eye and loss of vision, which may be permanent. Even if it doesn't reach that stage, by the time you get symptoms there may be irreversible damage. Picking up raised pressure inside the eyeball allows referral for regular treatment with drops that can prevent the crisis ever happening. If a parent, brother or sister has glaucoma, you're entitled to a free NHS health check every year once you're over the age of 40.

The report also highlights certain groups who are at particularly high risk. For instance, people with learning disabilities are ten times more likely to experience sight loss than the general population. People with dementia, especially if they're living in residential homes, tend to miss out on eye checks. And if you can't see, you're more likely to be scared and confused. That, in turn, can lead to you lashing out if you feel threatened - which may be interpreted as aggression or a consequence of your learning disability or dementia.

People of South Asian origin are at three times higher risk of eye disease related to diabetes than white people. People of Black African and Caribbean origin are four to eight times more likely to get some forms of glaucoma than Caucasians. But if you're white, you have your own risks - white people are more likely to get age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

There's a public health cost to sight loss - RNIB estimates that sight loss costs the UK economy £28 billion a year, way up on the £22 billion figure of just seven years ago. Of this, £1.5 billion comes from hospital inpatient and outpatient treatment. But the vast majority comes from 'indirect costs' - £5.65 billion from unpaid care and lower employment levels among people with sight problems, and almost £20 billion from reduction in wellbeing and health. But pounds and pence are only part of the story. The human misery that comes from losing your sight is so much more - and with half of cases of sight loss being preventable, now should be the time to make your appointment if you're overdue a test.

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