Whoever said, “The eyes are the windows to the soul,” he probably wasn’t thinking about the importance of protecting them from environmental threats, or supporting ocular health through proper nutrition. At the time, eye care was minimal, reserved for religious scribes or people of wealth who commissioned glassblowers to craft magnifying lenses as a way to read. It’s not difficult to imagine the struggles of early populations, given the large number of people who require corrective lenses today, about 14 million, according to the National Institutes of Health.
We now know that maintaining good eye health is vital in preventing or delaying a wide range of vision-related problems such as cataracts, macular degeneration, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy. Studies have also shown a correlation between visual impairment and cognitive dysfunctions like Alzheimer’s disease. Keeping our eyes healthy doesn’t have to be complicated, but unfortunately, to many people it’s an afterthought that takes a back seat to other forms of medical care. The Centers for Disease Control designated May as Healthy Vision Month. However, every month is an appropriate month to remember to take care of our vision. Here are a few ways we can be proactive, to better ensure our eyesight will serve us for the duration of our lives.
- Have your eyes examined. Every adult with healthy eyes should receive an eye exam in their twenties, again in their thirties, and, at age 40, ask their practitioner how often they should be seen thereafter. Professional opinions vary, but it is often every one to two years. The most important part of any standard eye exam is to have your pupils dilated through the use of muscle-relaxing eye drops. This allows your practitioner to detect potential issues at an early stage, when treatment is often more effective (bit.ly/NIH_eye_exam).
- Protect your eyes from UV rays. With the arrival of summer, many of us are spending more time outdoors, and we may not think twice about squinting into the sun to watch a spiraling osprey or Katama’s signature red biplane landing in the airfield. But studies show that by regularly exposing ourselves to bright sunlight, we may increase our risk of developing cataracts and growths on the eye, including cancer. UV rays reflected off sand and water can cause eyes to sunburn, potentially leading to temporary blindness. The American Academy of Ophthalmology suggests we wear UV-blocking sunglasses when outdoors, even on overcast days, and to give our eyes a further break by wearing broad-brimmed hats. It’s important to note that polarized sunglasses, which eliminate glare, are not the same as glasses that block UV rays. Some polarized sunglasses do not provide adequate UV protection, so always look for a pair clearly labeled UV 400, or 100 percent protection from UV rays.
- In today’s digital age, our eyes are subjected to prolonged screen time from computers, smartphones, and other electronic devices. This can result in digital eye strain, leading to symptoms such as dryness, eye fatigue, blurred vision, and headaches. The AAO does not recommend blue light-blocking glasses because of the lack of scientific evidence that blue light is damaging to the eyes, but rather, adopting healthy habits, such as sitting at arm’s length from the computer screen, to minimize the impact. It is also suggested that we use artificial tears to refresh our eyes if needed, adjust the contrast on our screens to make viewing comfortable, and practice the 20, 20, 20 rule — looking at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds every 20 minutes. If symptoms persist, always speak with an ophthalmologist.
- Maintain a healthy diet. Include lots of dark, leafy greens like spinach and kale,, as well as fish like salmon, tuna and halibut, which are high in eye-friendly omega-3 fatty acids. If you smoke, quit. It can be as damaging to your eyes as to your lungs.
- Wear protective eyewear. Few can argue that Vineyarders love the ocean, as evidenced by parking shortages along our beaches on fair-weather days. As invigorating as a dunk at South Beach can be, saltwater can dry out your eyes and lead to infection. Pool water can be unsafe, too. Exposure to chlorine decreases our tear layer, which may lead to allergic conjunctivitis and other conditions (bit.ly/water-related_eye_problems). Many goggles have added UV protection or glare-reducing mirrored lenses, and come in prescription strengths (if you wisely choose to leave your contact lenses at home). Safety glasses and goggles will protect your eyes during a wide range of sports, as well as construction projects around the home. Many eye care providers, hardware stores, and sports stores carry them.
Our eyes enable us to connect with and navigate our world in a miraculous way. With them we can appreciate the colors, shapes, and dimensions of the objects within our environment. Our eyes allow us to complete the tasks of daily living: working, playing, and communicating. By taking good care of this precious gift, we can better ensure that we will continue to enjoy these experiences long into our lives.