The Eyes Have It

Proper eye care and regular vision examinations throughout our lives, starting in childhood, are critical for maintaining good eye health. Whether you’re blessed with perfect eyesight, are one of the millions of Americans wearing corrective lenses, or have had your eyesight improved through surgery, there’s much we should know about our eyes and how they change, need protection and age.

May is Healthy Vision Month. It’s a good time to consider when you last had your eyes examined by a medical professional, and whether or not you’re doing a good job of caring for your eyes and protecting them from injury.

Caring for our eyes is mostly a matter of common sense, especially when it comes to avoiding eye strain or injuries. For starters, always wear approved eye protection or safety glasses on a jobsite or while competing in sports, but also when mowing a lawn or using power equipment. There are so many ways to hit ourselves in the eye, or to be injured by thrown objects, splashed liquids, and even wind-blown contaminants or materials. Hospital emergency rooms treat patients with eyes damaged by all manner of chemicals, fish hooks, baseballs, wood chips and much more. So if you’re doing something that might result in an injury, take the safe and easy step to cover your eyes.

Being aware of the potential damage from ultraviolet light also is important. Sunglasses and clear eyeglasses with protective coatings filter out the sun’s damaging rays, so if you work or spend a lot of time outdoors, you need that extra protection.

Caring for our eyes as we age

Adults should visit with an optometrist or an ophthalmologist at least once every other year, and annually if you have bad eyesight or a family history of glaucoma, cataracts, or other congenital or age-related eye ailments. Many eye maladies develop as we get older, part of the natural aging process. Through a comprehensive eye exam that typically involves dilating the pupils and conducting a number of standard (and painless) tests, eye care professionals not only determine sight deficiencies and illnesses, but also find warning signs pointing to other dangers such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancer.

Dry eye syndrome is a common ailment that affects people as we age. If the glands in our eyes stop making enough natural lubricants, we can buy over-the-counter remedies, but it’s best to have our eyes checked for inflammation or infection. Sometimes dry eyes occur from allergies and from living or working in windy, dry, or low-humidity environments, or in buildings with air-blown hot air. Doctors recommend “fake tears,” which don’t have as many chemicals as the “get the red out” eye drops, which can be habit forming. Anti-inflammation medications and vitamins or foods like fish oil which are high in Omega-3 are often recommended.

Glaucoma is a group of illnesses that can lead to blindness if not treated. When fluid builds up inside the eye, pressure and tension can result in damage to the optic nerve, including blindness. Glaucoma has no early warning signs. However, symptoms can include blurriness or clouded vision, sensitivity to light, headaches, reduced peripheral or “side” vision, or “tunnel vision.” It’s more common in adults over 60, in African American adults over 40, or in adults with diabetes or a family history of glaucoma. It’s most often treated through medications and surgery.

Many people also develop cataracts later in life. This clouding of the eye’s lenses becomes more common as we get older and as protein inside our lenses starts to clump together. Cataracts can create a halo effect around lights at night and make our eyes more sensitive to glare, even during daytime. Until the cataract causes severe vision problems, we can increase lighting and change our eyeglass prescription to help see more clearly. Once the haze gets bad, talk to your doctor about surgery to remove the clouded lens and replace it with an artificial one.

Another common age-related eye malady involves “floaters,” which appear as small particles hovering or floating in your eye through your field of vision. These appear when the fluid and vitreous gel inside our eye starts to break down with age.

If you are seeing new floaters all of a sudden, especially if they occur with flashes of light, see your eye doctor. Most of the time, floaters are an annoying, harmless issue. Sometimes, though, they can be a sign of a retinal tear, which can turn into a retinal detachment if you don’t get it treated. Although distracting, floaters are a normal part of getting older, and they won’t harm your vision. But if the floaters suddenly start multiplying and you’re also seeing flashing lights, get to your eye doctor’s office immediately – a retinal tear can cause permanent damage and blindness.

The good news is that through comprehensive, regular eye exams, your doctor can help keep your eyesight corrected, and check for early warning signs of glaucoma, potential retinal detachment and other common eye diseases. As previously mentioned, eye exams also reveal early warning signs of a variety of other illnesses ranging from diabetes to hypertension, so if you haven’t had your baby blues checked out by anyone besides an admiring friend, now’s a good time to call your eye doctor!

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Use Your Brain to Protect Your Heart

When we get tense, angry or stressed, we often complain about our blood pressure rising. For some it may simply be a euphemism for frustration…but for many people, it’s a life-threatening reality. As many as 73 million Americans have high blood pressure. And of the one in every four adults with high blood pressure, 31.6 percent are not aware they have it.

Doctors have long called high blood pressure “the silent killer” because a person can have high blood pressure and never have any symptoms. Many of the same unhealthy lifestyle behaviors (including poor diet and lack of physical exercise) that contribute to high blood pressure also have been linked to dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss and cognitive dysfunction. If left untreated, high blood pressure can lead to life-threatening medical problems such as stroke, heart attack or kidney failure.

High blood pressure is one of the most common causes of stroke because it puts unnecessary stress on blood vessel walls, causing them to thicken and deteriorate, which can eventually lead to a stroke. It can also speed up several common forms of heart disease. When blood vessel walls thicken with increased blood pressure, cholesterol or other fat-like substances may break off of artery walls and block a brain artery. In other instances, the increased stress can weaken blood vessel walls, leading to a vessel breakage and a brain hemorrhage.

When you strive to keep your heart healthy you help keep your brain healthy, too. Following a heart-healthy lifestyle may lower your blood pressure, which reduces your chances of having heart disease or a stroke, and it can also make a big difference in your mental abilities as you age.

It’s not a coincidence that we recognize National Stroke and Blood Pressure Awareness Month in May, which also is National Mental Health Month. The link between stress and increased blood pressure is well documented. When we’re frustrated, depressed, or under tremendous pressure at work or at home, we tend to eat poorly, not exercise and otherwise tax our bodies. Links have been established between stress and our body’s production of excess cholesterol. Stress also interferes with our normal sleep, which causes fatigue and makes us irritable and more susceptible to illness.

Managing our blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol are critical elements we can influence. Our bodies and minds are complicated mechanisms, and all systems are intertwined. We should always be aware of our blood pressure through regular checkups, know the warning signs, and make conscious decisions to take better care of ourselves.

Here are some tips for controlling blood pressure through a healthier lifestyle:

  • Exercise regularly. This includes getting outdoors or to the gym, setting reasonable goals for physical activity, and walking every day, if possible.
  • Maintain a healthy body weight. Limit intake of red meat and fried foods, sugar and fat, and adapt to a healthier diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean protein, and fish.
  • Limit your sodium intake by cutting down on processed foods, soda, and other products with a high salt content.
  • Try to reduce or quit smoking, and limit or eliminate the use of other tobacco products.
  • If you drink alcohol or coffee/caffeine products, practice moderation.
  • Have your blood pressure checked regularly. If it’s high, or if you have a family history of hypertension or heart disease, your physician may recommend medications created to help lower or control blood pressure and related conditions.
  • Be aware of situations and behaviors that cause you stress, and try to address or limit them.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Sunny Side Up: Good for Breakfast, Not for Our Skin

It’s already May, and we’re outdoors again as much as possible, enjoying the mild weather and longer days. We love the stunning spring colors, and those seasonal rituals like squeezing into our spring wardrobes, first barbeques, and basking in the sun. But remember: While we’re savoring the warmth and working on that early tan, we’re also soaking up damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays.

Every year we hear stories about the importance of covering up, applying sunscreen, and donning hats. But we’re creatures of habit, and procrastinators…maybe a little sun now, and then we’ll hit the shelves for sunscreen when it really gets hot!  But that’s a mistake – in fact, we should be protecting ourselves from damaging UV rays all year round.

May is UV and Skin Cancer Awareness Month. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Unprotected exposure to UV radiation is the most preventable risk factor for skin cancer. In fact, UV radiation from the sun and from tanning beds is classified as a human carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization. Each year, more new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. than new cases of breast, prostate, lung, and colon cancer combined. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, and one American dies from skin cancer every hour.

Chronic exposure to the sun suppresses our natural immune system and also causes premature aging, which over time can make the skin become thick, wrinkled, and leathery. Since it occurs gradually, often manifesting itself many years after the majority of a person’s sun exposure, premature aging is often regarded as an unavoidable, normal part of growing older. However, up to 90 percent of the visible skin changes commonly attributed to aging are caused by the sun. With proper protection from UV radiation, many forms of skin cancer and most premature aging of the skin can be avoided.

How to protect yourself from UV exposure

The best way to lower your risk of skin cancer is to protect your skin from the sun and ultraviolet light. Using sunscreen and avoiding the sun help reduce the chance of many aging skin changes, including some skin cancers. However, it is important not to rely too much on sunscreen alone. You should also not use sunscreen as an excuse to increase the amount of time you spend in the sun. Even with the use of sunscreens, people should not stay out too long during peak sunlight hours; UV rays can still penetrate your clothes and skin and do harm.

When possible, avoid sun exposure during the peak hours of 10 am to 4 pm, when UV rays are the strongest. Clouds and haze do not protect you from the sun, so use sun protection even on cloudy days. Use sunscreens that block out both UVA and UVB radiation. Products that contain either zinc oxide or titanium oxide offer the best protection. Less expensive products that have the same ingredients work as well as expensive ones. Older children and adults (even those with darker skin) benefit from using SPFs (sun protection factor) of 15 and over. Many experts recommend that most people use SPF 30 or higher on the face and 15 or higher on the body, and people who burn easily or have risk factors for skin cancer should use SPF 50+.

Here are helpful tips on when and how to use sunscreen:

  • Adults and children should wear sunscreen every day, even if they go outdoors for only a short time.
  • Apply 30 minutes before going outdoors for best results. This allows time for the sunscreen to be absorbed.
  • Remember to use sunscreen during the winter when snow and sun are both present.
  • Reapply at least every two hours while you are out in the sunlight.
  • Reapply after swimming or sweating. Waterproof formulas last for about 40 minutes in the water, and water-resistant formulas last half as long.

Wearing sunscreen is critical, but only half the battle. Here are additional safety tips and information for protecting yourself from harmful UV radiation:

  • Adults and children should wear hats with wide brims to shield from the sun’s rays.
  • Wear protective clothing. Look for loose-fitting, unbleached, tightly woven fabrics. The tighter the weave, the more protective the garment.
  • Avoid sun lamps, tanning beds, and tanning salons.
  • Buy clothing and swimwear that block out UV rays. This clothing is rated using SPF (as used with sunscreen) or a system called the ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) index.
  • Avoid surfaces that reflect light, such as water, sand, concrete, snow, and white-painted areas.
  • Beware that at higher altitudes you burn more quickly.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Stress at Work: Recognizing and Understanding Symptoms

We all experience stress, in different ways and from different sources and it affects each of us differently. The common denominator, though, is that stress in the workplace manifests itself in increased absenteeism and presenteeism, lower productivity and increased service errors. Stress also has a negative impact on safety, quality and teamwork.

According to the 2013 Work and Well-Being Survey released in March by the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Center for Organizational Excellence, more than one-third (35%) of American workers experience chronic work stress, with low salaries, lack of opportunities for advancement, and heavy workloads topping the list of contributing factors.

The online survey polled 1,501 adults in January 2013. The majority of those surveyed (53%) work at organizations with fewer than 500 employees, 37% at organizations employing fewer than 100. Thirty-one percent of respondents had frontline jobs, directly involved with the production of products or providing services such as sales, bookkeeping, and customer service. Twenty-nine percent had mid-level positions involving management and supervision or coordination of people or departments. Those with mid-level or senior positions but no management responsibilities comprised one-quarter of respondents, while 15% had upper-level positions, involving coordination of the organization, development of organizational plans/goals, and supervision of managers.

The APA’s most recent Stress in America survey (released in February 2013) also found high levels of employee stress, with 65% of working Americans citing work as a significant source of stress, and 35% reporting that they typically feel stressed during the workday.

Stress also is a contributor to high blood pressure and other diseases. When we’re frustrated, depressed, or under tremendous pressure at work or at home, we tend to eat poorly, not exercise and otherwise tax our bodies. Links have been established between stress and our body’s production of excess cholesterol. Stress also interferes with our normal sleep, which causes fatigue and makes us irritable and more susceptible to illness. When unchecked, stress interferes with our general quality of life, and can affect our relationships, productivity, customer service, safety and quality.

Why are we so stressed?

For starters, says the Work and Well-Being Survey, many workers don’t feel like they’re being paid enough or getting the recognition they deserve. Less than half of working Americans report that they receive adequate monetary compensation (46%) or non-monetary recognition (43%) for their contributions on the job. Additionally, just 43% of employees say that recognition is based on fair and useful performance evaluations. Just over half (51%) say they feel valued at work.

In addition to feeling undervalued, employees also report feeling unheard: Less than half (47%) say their employer regularly seeks input from employees, and even fewer (37%) say the organization makes changes based on that feedback.

On the heels of the recession, many employees also appear to feel stuck, with only 39% citing sufficient opportunities for internal career advancement.

Despite growing awareness of the importance of a healthy workplace, few employees say their organizations provide sufficient resources to help them manage stress (36%) and meet their mental health needs (44%). Just 42% of employees say that their organizations promote and support a healthy lifestyle, and only 36% report regularly participating in workplace health and wellness programs. “This isn’t just an HR or management issue,” says Norman B. Anderson, Ph.D., APA’s CEO, “The well-being of an organization’s workforce is a strategic business imperative that is linked to its performance and success.”

Also, despite many work-related advances for women, the workplace still doesn’t feel like a level playing field for many women who report feeling less valued than men (48%). Less than half of employed women (43%) say they receive adequate monetary compensation for their work, compared to 48% of employed men. Further, fewer employed women than men report that their employer provides sufficient opportunities for internal career advancement (35% versus 43%) or resources to help them manage stress (34% versus 38%). Though employed women are more likely than men to report having good mental health (86% versus 76%), more women say they typically feel tense or stressed out at work (37% versus 33%).

Employers can’t eliminate all the factors that cause their workers to feel stressed, but there are a number of items that can be addressed – and most of them are outlined in the issues described above. Next month, in the June issue of CBIA Healthy Connections, Wellness Matters will address how to set up a roadmap for decreased stress in the workplace.

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!