Did you know that 50,000 people lose their sight needlessly every year? That's according to Prevent Blindness America, a nonprofit organization that raises awareness for vision issues. Not only that, but 80 million Americans are at risk for eye diseases that lead to poor vision or blindness.
The good news is the most common diseases – age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, glaucoma, and dry-eye disease – can be prevented, at least to a point. Here are a few ways you can preserve your eyesight.
WebMD and Stealth Health by Reader's Digest share these tips for protecting your eyes.
Nutrition is vital
Your eyes are connected to your stomach. Many studies now show that nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, lutein, zinc, and vitamins C and E may help fight age-related vision problems like age-related macular degeneration – basically, deteriorating vision that's the leading cause of blindness in older people – and cataracts.
Regularly eating these foods can help eye health:
- Green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, and collards
- Salmon, tuna, and other oily fish
- Eggs, nuts, beans, and other non-meat protein sources
- Oranges and other citrus fruits or juices
A well-balanced diet also helps you stay at a healthy weight, which is a way to lower your risk of type 2 diabetes. Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness in adults. In fact, as many as 45% of people with diabetes develop a disease called diabetic retinopathy, which damages vision. Diabetes also boosts your risk for glaucoma and cataracts.
A few more details and more nutrition-related tips:
- Eat fish twice a week. A 2003 Harvard University study of the diets of 32,470 women found the women who ate the least fish had the highest risk of dry-eye syndrome. Fish, even canned tuna fish, contains omega-3 fatty acids. These are "good" fats that fight moisture loss. If you're not a fish fan, try fish-oil supplements.
- Skip the greasy or sweet snacks at least twice a week. A 2001 study found that people whose diets were high in omega-3 fatty acids – like those in that fish you should eat twice a week – and low in omega-6 fatty acids were less likely to suffer age-related macular degeneration than those whose diets were low in omega-3s and high in omega-6s. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in fat-filled snack foods like commercially prepared pie, cake, cookies, and potato chips. In fact, the study said, even if you ate enough fish to boost your omega-3 acids, too much omega-6 acid in your diet could cancel out the benefits.
- Cook with red onions. Red onions contain more quercetin, an antioxidant that is thought to protect against cataracts, than other onions.
- Eat a sweet potato (or two, or more). Vitamin A is good for your night vision, and sweet potatoes are a great source.
- Eat your spinach, twice a week. No matter how you eat it – and there are thousands of recipes – spinach contains lots of lutein. Lutein may prevent age-related macular degeneration and cataracts. To make sure your body absorbs the most lutein possible, combine your spinach with some form of fat. Olive oil is a great option. Sautéed spinach and garlic, anyone? And then there are collard greens and kale. They're high in lutein, and in something called zeaxanthin. Again, these may lower your risk of cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. And even when disease has already begun, they may help slow its progress and repair some damage.
- Roasted fresh beets = bright idea. Beets get their deep red color from sun-activated chemicals called anthocyanin. These powerful antioxidants – sometimes called "super antioxidants" – protect the smaller blood vessels in your body, including those in your eyes.
- Watch the salt. High-salt diets increase your risk of certain types of cataracts. When you're buying canned or prepared foods, check for "no-salt" or "no-sodium," or "low-salt" or "low-sodium" labels. And when you're cooking, try "lite" salt or other spices instead.
- Enjoy a cup of blueberries and a cup of yogurt for breakfast. Blueberries are chock-full of antioxidants. In an Archives of Ophthalmology study, people who ate the most fruit were the least likely to develop age-related macular degeneration.
- Spread some bilberry jam on your morning toast, or take a daily bilberry supplement. Like beets, bilberries contain anthocyanosides. And as with beets, these "super antioxidants" may protect against macular degeneration.
More tips worth a closer look
- Don't smoke. Smoking boosts your risk of cataracts, glaucoma, dry eyes, and macular degeneration.
- Take a multivitamin daily. Multivitamins contain antioxidant vitamins and zinc. And while you're at it, include 150 milligrams of vitamin C. A study of women who took vitamin C supplements every day over 10 years showed they were 77 percent less likely to show early signs of cataracts than those who didn't take supplemental C.
- Walk at least four times a week. There are studies that suggest that exercise can reduce the intraocular pressure – pressure inside the eyes – in people with glaucoma. In one study, glaucoma patients who walked briskly for 40 minutes four times a week were able to lower their IOP enough that they didn't need glaucoma medication anymore.
- Keep your car vents aimed down. Dry, air-conditioned air will dry your eyes, too. Sunglasses also serve as a good shield. Seriously dry eyes can suffer corneal abrasions and even blindness if not treated.
- Don't overheat your house. Heat dries out the air. And dry air leads to dry eyes.
- Wear sunglasses outdoors. A study of Chesapeake Bay fishermen showed that those who protected their eyes from the sun were much less likely to develop cataracts or age-related macular degeneration. Choose sunglasses that block 99% to 100% of both UVA and UVB rays. "Wraparound" lenses will help protect the sides of your eyes. Polarized lenses can help reduce glare when driving. People who wear contact lenses can now get contact lenses that offer UV protection.
- Wear a broad-brimmed hat along with your sunglasses. A wide-brimmed hat or cap can help block the sun's ultraviolet radiation that may sneak into your eyes from above or around glasses.
- Take care of your eyes when you're reading or working at the computer. Fight tired and strained eyes by looking up and away from your computer or book to some distant point for 30 seconds. This helps prevent eye fatigue and eyestrain. Setting your alarm to remind you every 30 minutes can really help.
Other ways to help your eyes at the computer:
- Place your computer screen just below eye level. Because a lower screen position will make your eyes close slightly when you're staring at it, this can help. Eyes that aren't wide open are less likely to get dry eye syndrome.
- Make sure your glasses or contact lens prescription is current, and that it's right for computer use.
- Try to avoid glare from windows and lights on your computer screen. If you need it, use an anti-glare screen.
- Choose a comfortable, supportive chair, and sit with your feet flat on the floor.
- Blink often to keep your eyes moist.
- Check your blood pressure often. The two top causes of blindness in the United States are high blood pressure and diabetes, both of which damage blood vessels. So check your blood pressure at least once a month with a home blood pressure kit, at the doctor's office, or at the pharmacy.
- Buy new mascara every three months, and replace your other eye makeup once a year. Eye makeup harbors bacteria that can infect your eyes.
- Remove eye makeup every night before bed. This keeps bits of mascara from getting into your eye. Even tiny pieces may scratch your cornea.
- Better safe than sorry: protect your eyes with goggles. Debris can cause corneal abrasions, which can damage your vision. And if you're playing a sport like hockey or racquetball, consider protective face masks or goggles.
- Use a fresh towel. Every time you wipe your face, go for a fresh face towel. Shared towels are a common source of "pinkeye," also known as conjunctivitis.
- Visit your eye doctor on a regular basis. Everyone – even young children – should have their eyes examined regularly. If you're at risk for eye problems or have a family history of them, this is very important.
Depending on your needs, you can see an optometrist or an ophthalmologist for an eye exam.
Optometrists have had four years of training after college. They perform eye care, can treat some but not all eye diseases, but are not certified for eye surgery.
Ophthalmologists are medical doctors who focus on eye care. They can provide general vision care, treat eye diseases, and perform eye surgery.
Children need their vision checked at 6 months, 3 years, and before first grade. For children ages 0 - 18, see your child's pediatrician or eye doctor if you notice:
- Red or crusty eyes
- Teary eyes
- Constant eye movement
- Extreme light sensitivity
- White pupil(s)
- Eyes turning in or out
- Squinting or head-tilting
- Hand-eye coordination problems
- Holding things close to see
- Sitting close to the TV
- Avoiding coloring, puzzles, or other detailed work
- Short attention span
- Avoiding reading or other "close-vision" work
- Frequent blinking
- Not remembering what he or she has read
- Covering one eye
- Double vision
- Head tilting
Adults 19 to 60 years of age should have an eye exam at least every two years. If you have vision problems, a family history of eye disease, or high blood pressure or diabetes, your doctor may want to see you more often.
And call your doctor right away if you notice signs of vision problems including:
- Changes in your vision
- Straight lines start appearing as wavy lines
- Blind spots
- Lack of vision in the center of your eye
- An increase of "floaters" – particles in the fluid of your eye that show up as small spots in your vision – especially if you also notice bright, flashing lights
If you're 60 or older, have an eye exam once a year, or more often if your eye doctor thinks you need it. As you age, your risk increases for some eye diseases, such as glaucoma, that have no symptoms. So a person can have this condition and not know it. However, huge medical advances for age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, and cataracts can help people with these conditions keep their vision.
Regular eye exams are the best way to catch any eye problems early when they're easier to treat.