How to be kind to your eyes

It may be natural for eyesight to deteriorate as you get older - most people notice a change by their mid-40s. But some potentially eyesight threatening conditions can creep up on you unawares - so regular eye checks should be an essential part of your routine

Glaucoma

This month is Glaucoma Awareness Month in the United States, and wherever you happen to live, if you value your eyesight, you really need to know about this one. The most common kind, chronic glaucoma, affects about one in 50 people over 40. Your eyeball is full of fluid called aqueous humour. This constantly drains away and is topped up. If the drain gets partly blocked, fluid (and pressure) build up in the eyeball, damaging the nerve that let you see. In chronic glaucoma, this happens gradually, so you may not notice changes until it's too late unless you see your optician.

Left untreated, chronic glaucoma can gradually damage your optic nerve, the nerve which carries messages from the light receptors at the back of your eye to your brain. This can lead to a loss of vision, starting with your peripheral vision (what you see at the edge of your field of vision). Your brain does a good job of compensating for loss of vision in one eye, and glaucoma is often more marked in one eye than another. That means that by the time you notice loss of vision, it's often irreversible.

Chronic glaucoma can usually be successfully treated with very regular use of prescribed eye drops, although it's essential to have regular follow up to check the treatment is controlling pressure inside the eye.

A less common form of glaucoma is acute angle-closure glaucoma. This causes severe, sudden onset of pain, redness of the eye and blurred or reduced vision when pressure inside the eye suddenly rises. Any acutely painful red eye, especially where your eyesight is also affected, is a health emergency - seek immediate medical help. You're at higher risk of glaucoma if it runs in your family, are very short-sighted or have diabetes. If you have a family history of glaucoma (in a parent or sibling) you're entitled to a free annual optician eye check over 40 in the UK. If high pressure is found, you'll be referred to hospital for treatment.

Age-related macular degeneration (ARMD)

Age related macular degeneration (ARMD) is the most common cause of loss of sight in adults. There are two main kinds - 'wet' and 'dry'. 'Dry' is more common and there isn't yet any approved treatment (although several clinical trials are ongoing), but takes years to cause serious problems. 'Wet' causes faster eyesight loss but can be treated. Eating plenty of green leafy vegetables, high in the antioxidants Zeaxanthin and lutein, may help protect you against ARMD. So does wearing sunglasses - ideally ones which block blue light as well as UV - which can protect against cataract development as well. Omega-3 fatty acid supplements, on the other hand, don't appear to help.

Cataracts

Cataracts - clouding over of the lens of the eye, which we use to focus images - get more common with age. They're easily treated with surgery under local anaesthetic, and your optician can tell you if they're severe enough to get treatment on the NHS. Smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, excess alcohol and being overweight all increase the risk, so there are lots you can do to cut your chances of getting them.

Eye problems associated with diabetes

Diabetes is a major cause of eye problems - high blood sugar can damage your eye as well as your kidneys, nerves and heart. If you have diabetes, you should be invited every year for an eye test which includes taking photos of the back of the eyes (the retina). If problems are picked up, you'll be referred for specialist assessment and may be offered laser eye treatment to reduce the risks to your eyesight. This is definitely a situation where prevention is better than cure. Keeping your blood sugar well controlled with diet and medication can prevent eye problems and making sure you attend regularly for eye checks means any problems can be dealt with before they cause permanent damage.

Dry eyes

There's no upper age limit for wearing contact lenses. These days, you can get bifocal or varifocal lenses, and newer materials prevent some of the problems of dry eyes associated with contact lenses in the past. However, if you have dry eyes because of medication or a medical condition; overactive thyroid; uncontrolled diabetes; severe arthritis affecting your hands; or eye allergies, you should stick to glasses. Your optician can advise.

Self-care for your eyes

Everyone should have an eye test with a registered optician at least every two years. As well as cataract and glaucoma, they can spot changes related to high blood pressure, diabetes and other medical conditions. Getting glasses when you need them can help protect against eye strain, headaches and aching eyes. See your optician or doctor soon if you get a sudden increase in 'floaters' across your visual fields

If, like so many of us, you spend long hours at the computer, use the 20-20-20 rule - take a break every 20 minutes to focus for 20 seconds on something 20 feet away - and blink often to avoid dry, irritated eyes. Sudden loss of vision, severely painful red eye or flashing lights are medical emergencies - so if you're experiencing these symptoms, get your eyes checked now!

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

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