Don’t go blind through ignorance

While ageing and family history are the most significant factors in deteriorating eyesight, there are steps you can take to help minimise their effects, writes Judy Hobson


One of the best ways to protect your eyes is to have regular eyesight examinations. But research carried out by the charity, The Eyecare Trust, shows that one in ten adults in Britain has never had an eye test.

They do not realise a serious eye condition such as glaucoma, if detected early, can be well-managed with daily eye-drops to relieve pressure in the eye and prevent significant loss of vision. One in 20 over-65s has glaucoma where pressure in the eye affects the optic nerve, which in turn affects their sight.

“People think they’ll go for an eye test when they have a problem, but by then it can be too late,” says Dharmesh Patel, chairman of The Eyecare Trust. “Take glaucoma, it’s possible for us to detect it six to eight years before the patient notices symptoms. This means we can treat it before it leads to a significant loss of sight. If this doesn’t happen the patient will start losing sections of their vision. Anyone over 40 with a family history of glaucoma should have regular eye tests.”

The exact cause of age-related macular disease (AMD) is unknown. But it is well established that eating lots of green, leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale, rich in the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, can help protect the macular, the small area at the centre of the retina.

The most important thing you can do to protect your eyesight if you’re a smoker is to stop

Around 600,000 people in the UK have AMD and it is estimated that one in nine developed it as a direct result of smoking. Smokers are twice as likely to suffer from AMD as non-smokers and, on average, according to a study (Ronald Klein et al, 2008), suffer from it more than five years earlier. The average age of AMD in a non-smoker is 74.4 years, while in a smoker it is 69.2 years. The disease’s progression is also much more rapid in a smoker.

“The most important thing you can do to protect your eyesight if you’re a smoker,” says Mr Patel, “is to stop, because smoking increases your risk of developing cataracts and age-related macular disease; it also exacerbates dry eye syndrome.”

The toxic chemicals given off in the tobacco smoke damage the delicate surface and internal structure of the eye. This leads to both the wet and dry forms of AMD, and also to cataracts.

Smokers have a 2.9 greater risk of developing cataracts than non-smokers, but the majority of them appear unaware that the habit can result in blindness, even though cigarette packets nowadays carry a warning that smoking can cause blindness. A hospital-based study (Bidwell et al), found that, while 92 per cent knew smoking could cause lung cancer and 87 per cent heart disease, only 9.7 per cent realised it could also affect their eyesight.

As we age, eyes become drier because there is a reduction in the oily secretion from the meibomian glands located at the top and bottom of the eyelids, and eyes get itchy and sore. One in five over-55s suffers from dry eye syndrome. Regularly eating oily fish that contains Omega 3 fatty acids reduces the risk of developing this eye condition. The Omega 3 is thought to help the meibomian glands produce more of the oily secretion.

SCREEN FATIGUE

By gazing too long at a computer screen, and at texts or apps on your mobile phone, you are putting your eyes at risk.

More than 20 per cent of the UK population already suffer from dry eye syndrome and complain of eyes that are itchy and sore. According to The Eyecare Trust, a staggering 90 per cent of computer users have screen fatigue with headaches, eyestrain, and problems with their close and long-distance vision.

With more and more people spending their whole working day in front of a computer screen, texting on the journey home and then using a laptop or tablet PC while watching TV, these figures are set to soar.

Everything we use that is close-up, says The Eyecare Trust’s chairman Dharmesh Patel, can cause us to have dry eyes and screen fatigue.

“This is why parents should limit the amount of time young children spend in front of a screen and ensure they take regular breaks,” he says.

One reason computer users get dry eyes is because, when they are looking at the screen, they do not blink as much as normal. This causes a reduction in the tear film that covers and protects the eyes.

Mr Patel says: “I tell people to consciously blink more often and obey the 20/20 rule: every 20 minutes refocus your eyes by looking 20ft away for 20 seconds.”