The Eyes Have It

Our eyes, it’s said, are our windows to the world. Romantic and aesthetic benefits aside, taking care of our peepers is an important and often overlooked task, especially since we don’t think about eye health until we have a problem. But as January is National Glaucoma Awareness Month, it’s a good time to consider how best to care for our eyes, and to become aware of warning signs that may require medical care or interventions.

Glaucoma is a group of diseases that damage the eye’s optic nerve and can result in vision loss and blindness. The optic nerve is a bundle of more than 1 million nerve fibers, and it is necessary for good vision as it connects the retina to the brain. The retina is the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye.

Studies have shown that eye pressure is a major risk factor for optic nerve damage. In the front of the eye is a space called the anterior chamber. A clear fluid flows continuously in and out of the chamber and nourishes nearby tissues. The fluid flows through a spongy meshwork, like a drain, and leaves the eye.

With glaucoma, the fluid passes too slowly through the meshwork drain. Since the fluid builds up, the pressure inside the eye rises to a level that may damage the optic nerve. When the optic nerve is damaged from increased pressure, glaucoma — and vision loss — may result. That’s why controlling pressure inside the eye is important.

Another risk factor for optic nerve damage relates to blood pressure. It is important to make sure that your blood pressure is at a proper level. This can be determined by visiting your primary care physician.

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.

Not every person with increased eye pressure will develop glaucoma. Some people can tolerate higher levels of eye pressure better than others. Also, a certain level of eye pressure may be high for one person but normal for another.

Whether you develop glaucoma depends on the level of pressure your optic nerve can tolerate without being damaged. This level is different for each person. That’s why a comprehensive dilated eye exam is very important. It can help your eye care professional determine what level of eye pressure is normal for you.

Take care of your eyes, and they’ll take care of you

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 your 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.

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.

Dry eye syndrome also affects us as we age. If the glands in our eyes stop making enough natural lubricants, we can buy over-the-counter remedies, but should have our eyes checked for inflammation or infection. Sometimes dry eyes occur 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. Anti-inflammation medications and vitamins or foods like fish oil, which are high in Omega-3, are often recommended.

Through comprehensive, regular eye exams, doctors can check for early warning signs of glaucoma, potential retinal detachment (which causes floaters or flashes in the eye but can be sight threatening) and other common eye diseases, and help keep those beautiful eyes of ours sparkling and healthy.

# # #

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!