Your Eyes Are Windows to Your Overall Health

Doctor helps the patient and gives the eye drops

You may not think about it until you try to thread a needle, read a book with fine print, or see objects in a darkened room. Or perhaps you know someone who has experienced cataracts, macular degeneration, or glaucoma. You discover that it's important to take care of your eyes.

William Shakespeare said "the eyes are the window to your soul." Let's take that one step further and say that the eyes are not only a window to your soul, but a window to your overall systemic health.

Your eye doctor has the ability to see the blood vessels, macula and optic nerve in the back of your eye; this allows for an opportunity to diagnose systemic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and potentially even heart issues. Along with this, your eye doctor has the ability to look for macular degeneration and glaucoma, diseases that can affect your central and peripheral vision, respectively.

A common concern for some individuals is dry eye syndrome. This is especially prevalent due to the increased use of technology. We don't blink as much when we are reading or working on a computer and this can certainly contribute to dryness in the eyes. Working on the computer may also cause eyestrain and fatigue. Because of this, it is important to take breaks every 20–30 minutes. A great way to do this is to take about 20 seconds every 20 minutes to look at something in the distance to allow your focusing system to relax.

We all lose our ability to focus up close over time due to changes that happen in the eye. Because of this change, most people need a reading prescription when they are in their 40s. The diminished ability to focus up close also affects the intermediate distance, which is where most people have their computer positioned. Many individuals in their 40s and beyond find that special computer glasses are helpful, especially if they do a great deal of computer work.

One of the most important things you can do for eye health is to have a comprehensive eye exam at least every 1–2 years, depending on your current eye conditions and overall health. A visit to your eye care professional may be a source of apprehension for you, but the important thing to remember is that regular eye exams allow for detection of issues, which allows for proper intervention and care.

Eye exams can spot formation of cataracts, which cloud our vision. Nearly half of all Americans have cataracts by the time they reach 80. And eye doctors can talk with you about "floaters"—those annoying floating black dots, squiggly lines, and threadlike strands that are common among people ages 50 and up, especially those who are very nearsighted and those have had cataract surgery.

Additionally, your eye doctor can communicate with your primary care physician and, working as a team, you get the best care possible.

Mary Pat O'Leary, RN, BSN, a planner with Aging and Disability Services—the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle-King County—and Megan Szarkowski, an optometry student (O.D. anticipated in May 2015) with a B.S. Biology (Pre-Health Emphasis) contributed to this article and sidebar.

March is Save Your Vision Month

In recognition of Save Your Vision Month and Workplace Eye Wellness Month (both in March), here are tips about eye care.

Eat for good vision
Eye health starts with the food on your plate. Studies show that nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, lutein, zinc, and vitamins C and E help ward off age-related vision problems such as macular degeneration and cataracts. Regularly eating these foods can help lead to good 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

Maintain a healthy weight
Eating a well-balanced diet also helps you maintain a healthy weight, which makes you less likely to get obesity-related diseases such as diabetes type 2. Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness in adults.

Quit smoking
Smoking makes it more likely to get cataracts, optic nerve damage, and macular degeneration.

Wear sunglasses
Too much UV exposure makes you more likely to get cataracts and macular degeneration. Choose sunglasses that block 99%–100% of both UVA and UVB rays. Wraparound lenses help protect your eyes from the side. Polarized lenses reduce glare when driving.

Use safety eyewear
If you work with hazardous or airborne materials on the job or at home, wear safety glasses or protective goggles every time.

Look away from the computer screen
Staring at a computer screen for too long can cause eyestrain, blurry vision, trouble focusing at a distance, dry eyes, headaches, and neck, back, and shoulder pain. If you're a computer user, consider taking the following steps to protect your eyes:

  • Make sure your glasses or contact lens prescription is up to date and adequate for computer use. Some people may need glasses to help with contrast, glare, and eye strain when using a computer.
  • Position your computer so that your eyes are level with the top of the monitor. This allows you to look slightly down at the screen.
  • Try to avoid glare on your computer from windows and lights. Use an anti-glare screen if needed.
  • Choose a comfortable, supportive chair. Position it so that your feet are flat on the floor.
  • If your eyes are dry, blink more.
  • Every 20 minutes, rest your eyes by looking 20 feet away for 20 seconds. At least every two hours, get up and take a 15-minute break.

Visit your eye doctor regularly
Eye exams can identify eye diseases that have no symptoms, such as glaucoma. It's important to find these diseases early on, when they're easier to treat. Try to get a comprehensive eye exam at least every 1–2 years.