Health

Is your eyesight getting worse? Here’s why

And how to spot the early warning signs of a serious problem.
How to improve your eyesight

You may have heard some of these eyesight myths before: reading in poor light ruins your eyes (it doesn’t); the wrong prescription glasses will damage your eyes (nope); and wearing glasses makes your eyesight weaker (not true either). Potentially perilous is this doozy though: if your vision hasn’t noticeably changed, you don’t need a check-up.

 “Getting your eyes tested regularly is critical because many eye conditions, like glaucoma, macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy, are characterised by a lack of symptoms, particularly in the early stages,” says Dr May Ho, The Fred Hollows Foundation Optometry and Primary Eye Care Advisor. “We often say that you don’t know how important good eyesight is until it’s gone. It affects our ability to drive, attend school or work, interact with friends and family and maintain our physical health.”

One of the most common questions optometrists are asked is whether screens are bad for your eyesight. A 2021 Australian study found that almost 7 in 10 Australian adults reported problems with their eyes or suffered headaches after screen time. Specsavers Optometrist Greeshma Patel says the best way to prevent eye strain is to blink regularly, drink lots of water, adjust the brightness of your screen to match the light around you and to keep your distance from screens (an arm’s length is the minimum). “I also recommend the 20-20-20 rule,” says Greeshma Patel. “Every 20 minutes look at an object that is at least 20 metres away for at least 20 seconds.”

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More than 1 in 2 Australians have eye problems

The odds go up with each passing birthday so it’s unlikely you will get through life with 20/20 vision. A recent survey by The Fred Hollows Foundation found that almost three-quarters of Australian women have encountered vision problems and 69% of women wear glasses or contact lenses. “People often say health conditions don’t discriminate, but eye disease certainly does. In every region of the world, women are more likely to be blind than men,” says Dr Ho, who explains that three quarters of advanced trachoma cases (a contagious bacterial infection) are women, as they tend to contract it from the children they care for. Australia is the only high-income country where trachoma is still endemic, mainly in remote communities.

“Eye conditions will affect almost everyone in their lifetime but around 90% of blindness and vision loss can be prevented or treated,’ says Dr Ho. “Eyes are a window to a person’s overall health and an eye examination can detect a wide range of health issues.”

Here are the most common eye conditions that can worsen with age:

Macular degeneration

The macula controls your central vision, which you need for reading, driving and recognising faces. It becomes thinner as you age and dry macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness for Australians of retirement age. There’s no cure but you can slow it down by sticking to healthy lifestyle habits (smoking, for example, doubles your risk). Carotenoids, found in green leafy vegetables and coloured fruit, are thought to help prevent age-related eye diseases. If you have the less common ‘wet’ macular degeneration, which causes fluid leakage under the retina, regular eye injections may be necessary. Symptoms include reduced central vision, visual distortions (straight lines seem bent), blurred vision when reading, difficulty adapting to low light.

Diabetic retinopathy

An estimated 1 in 3 Australians with diabetes have some sign of diabetic retinopathy, which causes small blood vessels in the eye to leak, leading to swelling of the eye tissue. Left untreated, it can cause blindness but laser therapy can manage it successfully. “It normally occurs in both eyes and it often has no symptoms until some vision is lost,” says Dr Ho. “Anyone with diabetes is at risk, particularly those who have had diabetes for 10 years or more.” Symptoms include floating shapes, blurred or patchy vision, eye pain or redness, sudden vision loss.

Cataracts

“Cataract causes half of the world’s blindness,” says Dr Ho who explains the condition, which causes a clouding of the lens inside the eye, is hereditary but can also be triggered by eye trauma, sunlight exposure, diabetes, smoking, aging and genetic disorders. “It can’t be prevented but it can be treated with a straightforward 20-minute operation. Unfortunately this is something millions of people are still unable to access.”
The Fred Hollows Foundation has helped restore sight to more than three million people in over 25 countries, but there is still work to do: 43 million people worldwide are still blind. “Fred was a humanitarian at his core. He found it obscene to let people go blind when they didn’t need to be,” says Dr Ho. “His passion for restoring eyesight came from his belief that everybody, no matter their financial circumstance, deserved the right to quality, affordable eye care.” In Australia, Medicare covers your annual eye check-up if you are over 65. Symptoms include cloudy vision, colours look faded, lamps and headlights seem too bright, double vision.

Glaucoma

Glaucoma can occur at any stage in life (though you’re more prone to it once over 50) and causes pressure in the eye, which damages the optic nerve (the signal transmitter between the eye and brain). It can lead to blindness so early detection is crucial. Symptoms include eye pain, blurred vision, halos or coloured rings around lights, and eye redness.

Visual snow syndrome

Visual snow syndrome affects around 1 in 50 people yet it was only discovered in 1995 and officially named in 2013. The symptoms are similar to watching a snowy TV screen and new research suggests that eye exercises can improve the condition. Symptoms include seeing ‘snow’ or ‘static’ everywhere, objects trailing after the actual image, light sensitivity, difficulty seeing at night.

Sunburn

Believe it or not, eyes can get sunburn and, over time, too much UV exposure turns the whites of your eyes a yellowish hue. “Sun damage can increase the risk of age-related macular degeneration and harmful UV rays are related to the development of some of the cancers in and around the eye,” says Dr Ho, who recommends sunglasses and a hat when outdoors in bright light. “Looking at the sun for any length of time can have irreversible consequences as it can damage the retina.” You can’t feel retina damage (it doesn’t hurt) and while it might seem safe to look at the sun when it’s not bright (such as during a solar eclipse), the damaging UV rays are just as dangerous. Symptoms include redness, grittiness, blurred vision.

Dry eye

Dry eye is chronic condition that affects around one-third of Australian adults, and is particularly common for women over 50. Often the oil glands in the eyelids are no longer functioning properly causing the natural moisture on the eye surface to evaporate too quickly. Eye drops can help alleviate symptoms temporarily. Symptoms include gritty sensation, water eyes, redness, itchiness, eyelid inflammation.

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What to eat for better eyesight

Can munching on carrots really improve your eyesight? Research suggests it won’t improve poor vision but the betacarotene, which converts to vitamin A in the body, is an essential nutrient for maintaining healthy eyes. “In terms of our diet, something we can all do is increase our Vitamin A intake from fruits & vegetables, and also Omega-3 fatty acids in foods found in fish and seeds, such as hemp or flax,” says Victor Tuballa, Naturopath and Brand Ambassador for Thompson’s. “Some people can benefit from a herbal supplement such as bilberry to support eye health.”

A 2017 observational study found that drinking green tea every day was linked to a lower glaucoma risk (coffee didn’t have the same effect), and a 2019 U.S study found that grapeseed extract showed promise in improving early stages of diabetic retinopathy.

The information in this article is of a general nature. For specific health conditions or before altering your diet see your doctor or health professional.

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