Wearing safety glasses and goggles that protect against flying debris and chemical splashes is important when you work in construction, but it’s not all you need to do to maintain the health of your eyes. Like physicals, annual skin cancer checks and visits to the dentist, routine eye exams are an important part of your preventive health care.

More than 50 million people living in the U.S. are 65 and older. Aging increases risk for a number of vision-robbing conditions. It’s important to know the signs and symptoms of these conditions and get your eyes checked if you are experiencing vision problems.

Vision Loss is a Growing Public Health Issue

Twenty-one million Americans have vision problems, many of which can be corrected.

Eighty million Americans have untreated eye diseases that can lead to blindness.

Costs associated with vision impairment exceed $35 billion and are expected to grow in both the U.S. and Canada.

  • Cataracts are a clouding of the lens of the eye. The most common symptom is cloudy or blurry vision. Other symptoms include glare, halos, poor night vision, a perception that colors are faded or that objects are yellowish and the need for brighter light when reading. It is usually treated with surgery.
  • Glaucoma is a condition where the optic nerve is damaged, usually by high pressure developing within the eye. Glaucoma has no symptoms in the early stages; often, the first sign is loss of peripheral vision. Sometimes pressure inside the eye can cause eye pain, headaches, blurred vision and halos around lights. The condition can be detected by pressure measurements during an eye exam.
  • Macular degeneration is the deterioration of the center of the retina, which controls visual acuity. Dark, blurry spots or whiteout affect the ability to see objects clearly during common tasks such as reading and driving. Symptoms can be slow to develop or advance quickly. It’s the leading cause of vision loss in Americans 60 years of age and older but can be detected through an eye exam and treated, especially if caught early.
  • Diabetic retinopathy occurs when high blood sugar promotes an overgrowth of blood vessels in the eye, leading to blurry vision. Tiny dark spots of cell material (“floaters”) can also affect vision. The condition may progress if not controlled, leading to severe vision loss. Over 23 million Americans have diabetes and are at risk for diabetic retinopathy. Treatment includes better control of diabetes combined with medication and surgery.

Even if you aren’t experiencing vision problems, you should still get your eyes examined regularly. An eye exam can detect many of the conditions listed before you’re able to notice symptoms. The earlier an eye condition is discovered, the more likely it can be treated successfully. Eyeglasses, contact lenses, corrective surgery and medication can make it possible for many people with vision problems to lead productive lives.

How Often Should You Have an Eye Exam?

The American Optometric Association generally recommends comprehensive eye exams every one to two years depending on your age and risk level. See the chart below for more information:

If you are a young, healthy person with no family history of eye problems, an exam every two years by an optometrist should be sufficient. If you’re older or have a personal or family history of eye problems, consider seeing an ophthalmologist instead. Both optometrists and ophthalmologists can perform routine eye exams, but ophthalmologists generally have a higher level of training when it comes to diagnosing and treating complex eye conditions and diseases.

Vision impairment can push people out of the workforce and into years of disability and diminished quality of life. To keep your eyes healthy, include eye exams as a part of your routine health care.

What Else Can You Do to Protect Your Eyes?

The National Eye Institute recommends:

  • Wearing sunglasses
  • Eating lots of green, leafy vegetables, fatty fish, nuts and beans
  • Quitting smoking
  • If working at your computer, look away every 20 minutes for 20 seconds

Future articles in Lifelines will explore common conditions that can affect vision in more detail.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]