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Tips on keeping your eyes healthy for a lifetime

It’s a fact of life that vision changes occur as you get older. But these changes don’t have to compromise your lifestyle. Knowing what to expect and when to seek professional care are important steps to safeguarding your vision.

May is Healthy Vision Month, as designated by the National Institutes of Health. The American Optometric Association recommends annual dilation eye examinations for everyone over age 60 — whether or not your vision has changed — to check for age-related eye disease. For those who spend most of their days in front of a computer, that annual exam should begin as early as age 40.

People who sit in front of a computer for long periods of time often encounter a variety of uncomfortable symptoms. Headaches, neck strain, backaches and wrist pain are common, but the most prevalent symptoms of prolonged computer use — eye strain, blurred vision and dry eye — are often overlooked. In fact, eye and vision problems are the most frequently reported health care problems among computer users.

Sitting at a computer generally causes a person to look straight ahead for long stretches, work in a dry office or home environment, and to blink less often. These factors can lead to vision problems, collectively known as computer vision syndrome.

Computer junkies or not, those who have reached 60 and beyond need to be attentive to warning signs of age-related eye health problems that could cause vision loss. Many eye diseases have no early symptoms. They may develop painlessly, and you may not be aware of changes to your vision until the condition is quite advanced. But wise lifestyle choices and regular eye exams can significantly improve your chances of maintaining good eye health even as you age.

Safeguarding your vision as you age can have a tremendous impact on your quality of life. Health problems affecting other parts of the body can affect your vision as well. Individuals with diabetes or hypertension (high blood pressure) — or those taking medications that have eye-related side effects — are at greatest risk for developing vision problems. Therefore, regular eye exams are even more important as you reach your senior years.

In the years after you turn 60, a number of eye diseases may develop that can change your vision permanently. The earlier these problems are detected and treated, the more likely you are to be able to retain good vision.

The following are some vision disorders of which you should be aware:

Age-related macular degeneration is an eye disease affecting the macula, the center of the light sensitive retina at the back of the eye, causing loss of central vision. Although small, the macula is the part of the retina that allows us to see fine detail and colors. Activities like reading, driving, watching TV and recognizing faces all require good central vision provided by the macula. While macular degeneration causes changes in central vision, peripheral or side vision remains unaffected.

An annual eye exam can help catch devastating eye diseases like glaucoma and macular degeneration early. Early detection increases the chances of maintaining healthy vision in senior years.

Diabetic retinopathy is a condition occurring in people with diabetes. It is the result of progressive damage to the tiny blood vessels that nourish the retina. They leak blood and other fluids that cause swelling of retinal tissue and clouding of vision. The condition usually affects both eyes. The longer a person has diabetes, the more likely he is to develop diabetic retinopathy, which can cause blindness.

Retinal detachment is a tearing or separation of the retina from the underlying tissue. It can be caused by trauma to the eye or head, health problems like advanced diabetes and inflammatory disorders of the eye. But it most often occurs spontaneously as a result of changes to the gel-like vitreous fluid that fills the back of the eye. If not treated promptly, it can cause permanent vision loss.

Cataracts are cloudy or opaque areas in the normally clear lens of the eye. Depending upon their size and location, they can interfere with normal vision. Usually cataracts develop in both eyes, but one may be worse than the other. Cataracts can cause a decrease in contrast sensitivity, a dulling of colors and increased sensitivity to glare.

Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases characterized by damage to the optic nerve resulting in vision loss. People with a family history of glaucoma, African Americans and older adults are at higher risk for developing the disease.

Dry eye is a condition in which there is an insufficient amount of tears or a poor quality of tears to lubricate and nourish the eye. Tears are necessary for maintaining the health of the front surface of the eye and for providing clear vision. Dry eyes are a common and often chronic problem, particularly in older adults.

So, whether or not you have reached the magic age of 60, take the reminder of Healthy Vision Month as a wake-up call, and have your vision checked by a vision specialist. For more information go to www.aoa.org.

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