Focus on eyes in an ageing UK

Professor Roger Buckley, of Anglia Ruskin University’s department of vision and hearing sciences, assesses the UK’s eye health and warns that we need to take greater care of our sight

The nation’s sight is in decline, fuelled by an ageing population and unhealthy lifestyles.  Forecasters predict that the number of people living with sight loss will double to four million by 2050.

While there is nothing we can do to hold back the sands of time and stop the ageing process, many recent innovations will improve the early detection, prevention and management of age-related, hereditary and other sight-threatening eye conditions. These innovations include sophisticated new diagnostic technologies and pioneering advances in stem cell therapies.

Some of these developments are already in use and others hold out great hope for the future, but it remains urgent to educate people about what they can do today to care for their eyes.

Right now, according to the RNIB, half of all sight loss is avoidable, yet many of us are reluctant to get our eyes examined until we notice that our sight has declined, at which point irreparable damage may already have been done.

Poor uptake of sight tests is probably the biggest risk to the nation’s eye health. According to research conducted by the Eyecare Trust, 20 million of us fail to have our eyes checked once every two years, as recommended, and one person in ten has never had an eye examination.

Sight tests are vital health checks. Not only can optometrists detect eye conditions, such as glaucoma before they cause irreversible sight loss – it’s often possible to detect such risks years before you begin to notice that your vision has deteriorated – they can also reveal a range of other serious medical conditions, including hypertension, high cholesterol levels, diabetes, brain tumours and the risk of stroke.

Poor uptake of sight tests is probably the biggest risk to the nation’s eye health

Regular sight tests are particularly important for children, the over-60s, people with a family history of eye disease, those with underlying systemic health conditions and people of some ethnic origins who have an increased risk of eye disease.

Having regular sight tests isn’t the only step you can take to save your sight. Making small changes to your lifestyle can make a signficant difference to your eye health.

Smokers have a four-fold increased risk of suffering  age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the UK’s leading cause of blindness. The remedy is obvious.

Your weight can also affect your eye health. A Body Mass Index of 30 or more doubles your risk of AMD and significantly increases your chances of developing cataract.

Early obesity is also associated with diabetes and 60 per cent of people with type 2 diabetes will develop diabetic retinopathy.

Eating a healthy balanced diet may also benefit your eye health. Eye-friendly nutrients found in many fruits and vegetables can help to protect against AMD.

Cold water fish, such as sardines and tuna, are all excellent sources of essential fatty acids, which have been recommended for the avoidance of dry eye, AMD and generally better health.

Protecting your eyes from the cumulative effects of UV radiation is also vital. Studies show a link between UV radiation and cataract. When UV levels are high, glasses (clear or dark, or UV-inhibiting contact lenses) should be worn.