If you had to lose one of your senses, which would you choose? It’s a strange thought experiment, but you’ve almost certainly weighed in on it — and I’m willing to bet you didn’t pick vision.
I often have patients say things like, “Dr. Scott, you don’t realize how important my vision is to me.” I like to respond back, “I’m glad you told me — most of my patients don’t care whether or not they can see!” That usually gets a smile out of them, but I understand why so many people feel the need to say it. Our vision is something we think of with great tenderness and it is estimated that approximately 80% of what we learn from the world is through our vision.
At the same time, many people adopt a lackadaisical attitude towards their eye health, especially when things seem to be going well. We tend to treat our eyes a lot like we treat our cars. As long as everything is running fine, we’re sometimes inclined to ignore that sticker on the windshield telling us it’s time for an oil change. Then all of a sudden, the car makes a funny noise, and we remember why preventative care exists.
May is Healthy Vision Month, so it seems like a good time to remind you that your eye health can’t wait. People with a diagnosed eye condition (or a condition known to cause eye problems) should follow the guidance of their optometrist or ophthalmologist, but even those with no known issues should have regular checkups. At a minimum, people under 40 should have an exam every five years. Those between 40 and 54 should visit their eye doctor every 2–3 years, those 55–65 should go every 1–2 years, and anyone 65 or older should have an eye checkup annually.
Why? To start, macular degeneration may cause people to lose their center field of vision, resulting in an inability to read either a book or a sign on the highway and significantly reducing their quality of life. There are treatments now that can frequently slow down the progression of the disease so people can see better for longer. But early diagnosis is crucial because the vision already lost cannot be regained.
Another serious concern is glaucoma. In the U.S., 1.7% of white adults over 40 have glaucoma, but Black and Hispanic patients experience the condition at twice that rate. We call high pressure in the eye glaucoma — “the silent thief of vision.” The eyes and brain are adaptable and will generally “fill in” missing information on their own, so most people have no symptoms whatsoever until suddenly, their peripheral vision is gone. Regular checkups can catch this condition early.
Diabetes is another cause of ocular problems with the development of what is referred to as diabetic retinopathy with the retina’s vasculature degenerating over time. Diabetic retinopathy typically takes 5–15 years to develop and can be modified or reduced by better blood glucose control as well as maintaining a healthy blood pressure.
It is not just about identifying conditions before they progress. Absent professional advice, people also tend to believe in myths they probably first heard as a kid. Here are three common myths:
Myth No.1: Carrots improve your eye health. People say this because vitamin A supports eye health, but most individuals get their daily recommended amounts through their diets. Once you get as much vitamin A as you need, your vision won’t “improve” further, and your body will flush out the excess.
Myth No. 2: TV and computer screens can damage your eyesight. While you might get some eye strain or feel tired after prolonged staring at a screen, neither of these activities will cause damage. But there is evidence showing that children who do prolonged “near work” — concentrating on up-close objects like books or video games — are predisposed to nearsightedness. Researchers have found that going outside, seeing daylight, and looking off into the distance helps reduce the development of nearsightedness. So, recess time in school and other breaks are necessary and healthy in younger individuals. Not bad advice for adults either!
Myth No. 3: Losing your vision is a normal part of aging. While the need for reading glasses as we get older is common, vision loss is not. Therefore, visual loss should be viewed as a sign of a medical condition that needs further evaluation.
If you notice changes in your vision, visit your eye doctor as soon as possible. Maybe you just need a new pair of glasses, but it could be more serious. Though your doctor can rarely restore lost vision, they can often stop further deterioration.
Having first trained as an ophthalmologist before sub-specializing in eyelid plastic and reconstructive surgery, I truly appreciate how important vision is to all of my patients. The last thing I want to witness is unnecessary visual deterioration. Take care of yourself from head to toe and protect your most precious sense!