Regular eye checks and a healthy lifestyle go hand in hand with healthy eyes, yet too often we overlook the health of our eyes until we start to experience vision problems. So what should we be doing to protect our eyes?
Optometrist Karen Sparrow has some tips...
Every year 12.5 million people who need a regular eye test fail to have one, says the RNIB, a national charity that supports blind and partially sighted people.
Yet eye health experts stress that regular eye tests are a vital means of detecting early signs of some of the main causes of severe sight loss, including wet AMD, cataracts, glaucoma, diabetic eye disease and myopic degeneration.
In many cases, these conditions are treatable if detected early.
Optometrist Karen Sparrow says people should see an optometrist every two years, even if they don't need glasses, "and more often if you wear glasses or you start having problems with your eyes".
She points out that an eye examination doesn't just check how well you can see, but also assesses the health of your eyes and whether there are any underlying health conditions, such as high blood pressure or diabetes.
It's especially important for people aged 60 and over to attend for regular eye checks, yet many fail to do so, notes the RNIB.
A survey commissioned by the charity in 2007 found that the main reason given by older people for not having an eye check in the past two years was that they were not having any problems with their eyes.
"This shows that older people lack awareness of their own potential health risk and make the incorrect assumption that it is safe to wait for sight loss symptoms before having an eye health check," it warns.
Children's eye tests
Karen stresses that children need their eyes testing, too. "It's important to take your child to see an optometrist for a full eye examination before they start pre-school at three to four years old, and certainly before they enter Year 1, particularly if other family members wear glasses or have eye problems."
She points out that, as well as blurry vision and eye strain, some common childhood eye problems, such as amblyopia (lazy eye) and strabismus (squint), are treatable if discovered at an early age.
While older children have their eyes tested like adults, using all the same tests, the optometrist will adapt tests for younger children, she explains.
"For younger children, particularly those who do not know their letters yet, the optometrist will simplify tests, often using shape-matching skills or tests that do not need a response from the child."
She adds that eye tests are free through the NHS for children up to the age of 16.
How lifestyle affects eye health
Another sight charity, the Eyecare Trust, has warned about the impact on eye health of poor lifestyles, which it says are "fuelling an alarming decline in the UK's vision".
According to the Trust, official figures predict that the number of people with sight loss in the UK will double to 4 million by 2030. However, Chairman Iain Anderson stresses that it's never too late to start making lifestyle changes that can help protect your vision.
"In some instances," he notes, "vision that is already in decline can be restored by following a healthy diet, taking regular exercise and generally cutting down on the things that we know are bad for us, like cigarettes and alcohol."
Karen Sparrow also stresses the importance of a healthy diet to good eye health. She adds that certain fruits and vegetables containing lutein and zeaxanthin may help protect against some eye diseases, such as macula degeneration and cataracts, later in life.
Among foods that contain nutrients good for eyes, she says, are blueberries, spinach, broccoli, sweetcorn, orange and yellow peppers, kiwi fruit, grapes, oranges and mangoes.
Nutritionist Sarah Schenker adds that there is also strong evidence from various research studies linking the antioxidant vitamins A, C and E with good eye health.
"These vitamins help to maintain healthy cells and tissues in the eye," she explains. "They can be found in many different sources of fruit and vegetables, as well as nuts, seeds, dairy products and eggs."
Karen's tips for everyday eye care
In addition to having regular eye checks and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, Karen outlines some other precautions we can take in our everyday lives to help keep our eyes in tip-top condition.
Nowadays, we spend a lot of time on computers for leisure as well as for work, so it's important to make sure you and your eyes are as comfortable as possible when using a VDU screen. Make sure you can see over the top of your screen when sitting comfortably at your desk, and take regular breaks - about five minutes every hour if you are using a computer for longer than 60 minutes at a time. We also tend to stare at the screen, which makes the eyes feel dry and gritty, so remember to blink (closing your eyes fully several times during an hour's work) and to look out of the window or across the room every 20 minutes to rest the eyes. Your employer is responsible for your comfort if you are working with VDUs regularly and will have a policy for eye testing its employees.
Keep it clean
Many people wear contact lenses to correct their vision, and nowadays most are fitted with disposable lenses that can be thrown away every month or - the height of convenience - every day. It is really important to follow the guidelines and instructions your optometrist or optician gives you, as most problems associated with contact lenses derive from poor cleaning or wearing the lenses too long. If you wear eye make-up with your contact lenses, always put your lenses into a clean eye and then put your make-up on. Hypoallergenic formulas are less likely to irritate your eyes and it's best to avoid waterproof mascaras as, if particles get into your eye, they stick to your contact lens and irritate your eye.
Useful eye health websites
Looking after your eyes
Eye Care Trust
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