Eyes say so much about our health

Regular eye examinations can save more than your sight, as Lilian Anekwe reports in the run-up to National Eye Health Week


People are generally aware of the basic steps to stay fit and healthy. If asked, most can reel off a list – exercise, a balanced, healthy diet, not smoking and drinking in moderation – of “top tips” for staying in good shape.

However, fewer people would mention a regular eye test. But this is an equally important preventive health measure, says Alison McClune, an optometrist and spokeswoman for the UK’s Association of Optometrists.

“People can be reluctant to go and have their eyes tested,” she says. “An eye test is a vital general health check and optometrists encourage people to come in every couple of years.”

In the UK, eye tests are free for children and teenagers who are still in full-time education, and for everyone aged over 60. For others, employers often arrange for employees to have free eye tests.

A routine eye test, of the type on offer at any high street optician, is crucial for maintaining good eye health. It’s a test of your vision, but an optometrist will also look for eye diseases, such as cataracts, glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration.

The eye is the only place where blood vessels can be seen clearly, without the covering of skin

They can also check for signs of diseases not usually thought of as affecting the eyes, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, and diabetes. Rarer conditions like multiple sclerosis and brain tumours can also cause changes that an optometrist can see when looking into your eyes. Some optometrists are also able to offer extra services for people with glaucoma and diabetes.

“An eye test is really about maximising your visual potential,” Ms McClune says. “But we can also detect common eye conditions by testing things like the pressure inside the eye and there are visual field tests that look for problems with your central or peripheral vision. All these tests are part of the routine eye exam, certainly for anyone over 60, but UK guidelines also recommend them for anyone over the age of 40.”

The eye is the only place where blood vessels can be seen clearly, without the covering of skin. This is valuable when it comes to eye tests, says Carolynn Norman, an optometrist at Boots Opticians.

“We can see if something in the eye looks abnormal and tell you when you need to go to your GP, or refer you to a specialist eye unit for more tests.

“In people with diabetes, we often see bleeding at the back of the eye and fluid that has leaked into the eye. High cholesterol can cause arcus senilis, a white ring in front of the periphery of the iris, the coloured part of the eye, and the outside of the cornea.

“In people with high blood pressure, the blood vessels at the back of the eye can look wavy, because of haemorrhaging. But people can be born this way, which is why it’s so important that, if your optometrist recommends it, you see your GP who will be able to tell you if there’s a problem and if it needs treating.”