As we age, our eyes age too, and the risk of eye diseases and conditions— many with no warning signs—why experts stress the importance of an annual comprehensive eye exam for everyone over age 50. “Just as you’d visit an internist for your annual health check-up, it’s equally important to have your eyes checked each year—even if you’re not experiencing any vision problems,” says Divya Srikumaran, M.D., medical director at Johns Hopkins’ Wilmer Eye Institute in Odenton, Maryland.
Related: 5 Things You Should Know About Your Eyes
Though it’s true that early detection and treatment can help protect—and even save—your vision, so can living a healthy life. “Keeping your eyes healthy is as important as keeping the rest of you healthy,” says Michelle Andreoli, M.D., clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. These tips can help.
1. Don’t Smoke—or Hang Around Secondhand Smoke
The links between smoking and heart disease and lung cancer are well known. But did you know that smoking—or being exposed to secondhand smoke—also can harm your eyes and lead to vision loss?
Smoking interferes with the manufacture of a chemical necessary to help you see at night. It also increases the risk for many major eye disorders, including age-related macular degeneration (AMD), glaucoma and cataracts. The proof is in the numbers: Smokers have a four times greater risk of developing AMD than nonsmokers. If you live with a smoker, your risk for AMD is still high (it almost doubles). Heavy smokers (more than 15 cigarettes per day) also have a three times greater risk of developing cataracts than do nonsmokers.
2. Eat a Healthy Diet
Is it an old wives’ tale that eating carrots is good for your eyes? Not exactly. While carrots can’t improve your eyesight, they can keep your vision healthy, thanks to vitamin A. But A is not the only vitamin good for your eyes, says registered dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You From Label to Table.
Related: Do You Need to Take Vitamins to Have Healthy Eyes?
“The foods we eat have a tremendous impact on our eye health. Green leafy vegetables and eggs are both high in lutein and zeaxanthin, nutrients that have been found to reduce the risk of chronic eye diseases like AMD and cataracts,” she says. Other eye-healthy foods include salmon, a potent source of omega-3 fatty acids; Brussels sprouts and grapefruit, rich in vitamin C; nuts and seeds, which contain vitamin E; and shellfish and whole grains, powerful sources of zinc, which transports vitamin A from the liver to the retina to produce melanin, a protective pigment in the eye.
The Mediterranean diet has been associated with helping slow the progression of AMD, according to a 2017 study. It includes fruits, vegetables, fatty fish like salmon and sardines, olive oil, nuts and other healthy fats.
3. Cover Up
Sunglasses and hats are more than just fashion accessories. They help protect your eyes from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays, which can cause molecular damage and increase the risk for AMD and cataracts.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends wearing dark sunglasses that block 99 or 100 percent of all UV light. Some labels will say “UV absorption up to 400 nm,” which means there is 100 percent UV absorption. If your glasses aren’t at 100 percent, plastic and glass lenses can be treated with a special chemical to improve their UV absorption rating. Note: Polarized lenses are not the same as UV protective lenses. They have a special filter for reducing glare, but may not provide maximum UV protection.
Related: 8 Things You Should Do Every Day to Protect Your Eyes
We all know it’s good for mood, metabolism and overall health, but exercise can decrease the risk of many eye conditions, including cataracts, wet age-related AMD and glaucoma, research says. In fact, people who regularly exercise three or more times a week have a lower risk of developing wet age-related AMD (a more serious type in which blood vessels leak fluid and blood under the retina and can damage central vision), according to a study published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology.
“As AMD progresses, it may be harder to read or to drive at night, and objects may not be as bright as they used to be,” says Craig See, M.D., an ophthalmologist at Cleveland Clinic’s Cole Eye Institute. Exercise also benefits your eyes because it can decrease your risk of developing other health problems that can lead to vision problems, like diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
5. Keep Blood Sugar in Check
If you have diabetes and your blood sugar is too high for too long, the blood vessels in your retina can swell, leak or grow abnormally, affecting vision in both eyes, says See. The longer you’ve had diabetes, the greater your risk is of developing an eye disease known as diabetic retinopathy, which can affect anyone with Type 1, Type 2 or gestational diabetes and is the leading cause of blindness among working-age adults.
“People with well-controlled sugars will probably never have the complication of eye problems from their diabetes,” See says, which is why careful management is so crucial.
Diabetes also can put you at risk for developing glaucoma and cataracts, Andreoli says.
TEST YOUR EYE-Q
AMD In age-related macular degeneration, damage to a part of the retina known as the macula causes a loss in central vision. Currently, treatment exists only for one type, wet AMD, which is less common but more serious.
Cataracts occur when there is a breakdown in normal proteins in the lens of the eye, which naturally happens around age 40 and worsens in time, causing cloudy, blurry or double vision, light sensitivity and trouble seeing well at night.
Glaucoma Pressure from the buildup of fluid in the front part of the eye causes damage to the eye’s optic nerve. Eye pain, blurred vision and eye redness are symptoms.
Diabetic Retinopathy Uncontrolled high blood sugar can damage blood vessels in the retina. Symptoms can include vision loss, spots or dark floaters and reduced color vision.