Taking care at home and away

Even though more than 80 per cent of us fear losing our sight more than any other of the senses, 20 per cent have not had an eye examination in five years. But, in addition to eye tests, there are daily precautions we can take to protect our eyes and keep them fit and healthy, as Yvonne Gordon discovers

It’s easy to take our eyesight for granted until something goes wrong. But there are steps we can take to maintain better eye health for longer.

Eyecare is part of a balanced lifestyle which incorporates exercise, diet and weight control. Eye tests are recommended biennially for most adults or annually for those with a family history of diabetes, glaucoma or age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Protecting healthy eyes now can help avoid problems later.

Most computer screens are back-lit and pixelated, so eyes have to continually adjust. Computer glare can be avoided by not having windows directly in front or behind. Regular computer screen breaks are important to avoid eye strain.

Karen Sparrow, from the Association of Optometrists, stresses the importance of a comfortable working environment. “You should be able to see just over the top of the screen looking slightly down,” she says.

Eyecare is part of a balanced lifestyle which incorporates exercise, diet and weight control

Optometrist Tracy Goldie, of Ballantine Goldie in Edinburgh, adds that many patients complain of dry eyes. “If the dryness is due to screen use, we may suggest blinking exercises or eye drops,” she says.

For DIY enthusiasts, wearing goggles stops debris entering the eye. Swimmers can wear goggles against chlorine irritation and water-borne infection, but remove contact lenses first. Goggles are a precautionary measure in racket sports such as squash.

Protection from the sun is equally important and, according to the British Standards Institution, which has produced a sunglasses check-list with the UK Eyecare Trust, what counts is how well lenses filter out harmful ultraviolet rays. Sunglasses should carry the CE mark and British Standard BS EN 1836:1997. UV protection is particularly important for golfers and polarised lenses are suggested for sailors.

Drivers should wear sunglasses in filter category 0-3 or polarised sunglasses which reduce glare. They should be able to read a standard car number plate at 20.5m without squinting.

When travelling, ensure sunglasses have 100 per cent UV blocking levels. In dusty countries be extra hygienic with contact lenses and always wash hands in bottled water. Take spare lenses and enough solution. Remove contact lenses to avoid dry eyes on planes.

There is controversy about the medical benefits of eye exercises, which some optometrists regard as a kind of placebo. Dr Sandip Doshi, senior optometrist at The Eyecare Centre in Hove, East Sussex, says: “Exercises can be useful for children with a squint, but there are no proven benefits for adults.”

Try palming for relaxation:

While sitting, rub your hands together until they are warm. Close your eyes and cover them lightly with cupped palms, leaving no gaps. Breathe slowly and imagine deep blackness before removing your palms. Repeat for three minutes.

Or these:

  • Close your eyes tightly for three to five seconds and then open them for the same time. Repeat eight times;
  • Sit and roll your eyes clockwise, then anti-clockwise. Repeat five times, blinking in between;
  • Hold a pencil in front of you at arm’s length; move your arm slowly to your nose; follow the pencil with your eyes until you can’t keep it in focus. Repeat ten times;
  • Look at the wall and do pretend writing with your eyes without moving your head.

Finish with palming.

Eyes thrive on vitamins A, B and C, plus lutein and zinc, so your diet should include avocados, peppers, apricots, wheat germ and green leafy vegetables. Vitamin C-rich berries, kiwis, peppers and citrus fruit aid collagen production to reduce glaucoma risk. Nuts, seeds and oily fish are also good for eye health. Sweet potatoes, carrots, tomatoes and pumpkins contain carotenoids which protect the macula.

How diet and nutrition can protect ageing eyes

Diet and nutrition form part of a healthy lifestyle which may reduce aged-related eye diseases such as macular degeneration (AMD) and cataracts.

A leading cause of blindness in the UK, AMD gradually destroys central vision, so sufferers cannot recognise faces or read.

People who don’t eat healthily, who smoke and are overweight are more likely to get AMD

Researchers say that a diet containing oily fish, vitamins A, C and E, and rich in eye-protecting antioxidants called carotenoids, particularly lutein and zeaxanthin found in green and brightly coloured fruit and vegetables, could lower AMD risk.

Foods containing Omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish and walnuts, may also reduce cataract formation. These occur in people over 65 when the eye lens becomes opaque, causing blurred vision.

Vitamin C can lower the risk of glaucoma which affects peripheral vision. Symptom-free and irreversible, glaucoma usually manifests itself in old age unless arrested through early detection.

The Age-Related Eye Disease Study tested a combination of vitamins and minerals, and found people taking the supplement were less likely to develop advanced AMD.

As the body cannot manufacture carotenoids or Omega-3 fatty acids, these must be obtained through diet, but eating the recommended daily intake isn’t always easy.

Nutritional supplement Ocuvite Complete, from Bausch & Lomb, contains the Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins C & E, zinc and carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin, which filter out harmful blue light and free-radicals which cause eye damage.

Ian Grierson, professor of ophthalmology at the University of Liverpool and author of cook book, Vegetables for Vision, says: “A supplement providing the right balance is not only safe, but could protect eyes against future age-related changes when diet alone fails to deliver.”

Macular Disease Society chief executive Helen Jackman adds: “People who don’t eat healthily, who smoke and are overweight are more likely to get AMD.”

Efalex Vision from Efamol Ltd is another eye-health supplement combining key Omega-3 fatty acid DHA with lutein and carotenoids.

But even with good food and supplements, regular eye tests are essential because they pick up underlying conditions which, if undetected, could lead to age-related eye problems.