Many sight conditions are preventable and some individuals are in high risk groups. No-one wants to go blind and there is so much that you can do to limit the risk.
Studies show that antioxidants prevent the retina from damage done by smoking, alcohol and ultraviolet rays. As we age, the body is less efficient at getting rid of oxidants, and this can cause retinal damage.
An antioxidant called Lutein is hugely beneficial. It absorbs harmful wavelengths of light and behaves as a powerful antioxidant. However, the body does not produce its own lutein, so for this protection system to work effectively we need 6-10mg a day. It is estimated that the average western diet contains only 2-3mg per day, which means most of us lack lutein in our food. This is thought to be one of the reasons why macular degeneration has become more common.
Lutein is found in broad-leaf leaves such as spinach and kale, and in yellow vegetables such as sweetcorn and yellow peppers. Evidence suggests that a diet rich in brightly coloured fruit and vegetables in general is good for antioxidants.
Obesity is considered to be a major contributing factor to sight loss. It is estimated that the 10 million adults and two million children in the UK who are obese are twice as likely to lose their sight. A report published by the RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People) identified a direct link between obesity and some of the common eye conditions that cause blindness. These are:
- Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) AMD is the most common cause of adult blindness in the developed world. The macula is the central part of the retina at the back of the eye, and is responsible for picking up detailed visual information, such as reading words on a page, or sewing. It wears out naturally as we get older, resulting in poorer vision. Obesity speeds up the onset of AMD, and there is little treatment for the condition.
- Diabetic retinopathy Obesity significantly increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Someone with a body mass index (BMI) above 35 is up to 80 times more likely to develop the condition than someone with a BMI of less than 22. The most serious eye condition associated with diabetes involves the retina and, more specifically, the network of blood vessels within it. The vessels can allow fluid or blood to leak into the retina and damage it. This can result in serious loss of vision.
- Cataracts A cataract is a gradual thickening that develops in the lens of the eye. If you're obese, the risk of developing cataracts can be double that of people who are not overweight. Although cataracts are largely treatable, one in four cases of sight loss in people over the age of 75 is due to cataracts.
Drinking alcohol is not necessarily bad for your eyes and drinking a glass of red wine in the evening won’t do any harm in terms of macular degeneration. If you drink too much, however, the positive effects of the pigment will be outweighed by the negative effects of the alcohol.
While it might seem odd that exercise can help the eyes, it can be important. Good cardiovascular function is important, as poor circulation affects the blood vessels in the eyes. Research shows that exercise may reduce the risk of sight loss that can occur from high blood pressure, diabetes and the narrowing or hardening of the arteries.
Smoking is one of the big risk factors for developing macular degeneration. Research shows that smokers are three to four times more likely to develop AMD compared with non-smokers.
As well as AMD, smokers are about three times more likely to develop cataracts, a major sight-threatening condition.
Scientists believe that smokers may be more susceptible because metals found in tobacco smoke can gradually build up in the eye. Whatever the reason may be, the risk of developing a cataract increases the longer and more heavily a person smokes.
Protecting your eyes from the sun is very important and should not be underestimated. Under no circumstances should you ever look at the sun directly. Doing so could do irreversible damage to your eyesight and even lead to blindness. Sunlight can damage the retina and the lens of the eye, and studies show that people with outdoor jobs are more likely to suffer eye problems.
The College of Optometrists recommends buying good quality, dark sunglasses (these needn’t be expensive). Look for glasses carrying the 'CE' mark and the British Standard BS EN 1836:1997, which ensures that the sunglasses offer a safe level of ultraviolet protection.
Regular eye examinations
It is recommended that you visit an optometrist every two years (or more frequently if advised). This is important because an eye examination can detect potentially blinding eye conditions such as glaucoma, or underlying health problems such as diabetes. The earlier the problem is detected, the faster it can be treated.
It is easy to neglect your eyes because they rarely hurt when there is a problem. But once your eyesight is lost, it may never be restored.
Diabetic Retinopathy Screening
The aim of the programme is to reduce the risk of sight loss amongst people with diabetes, by the prompt identification and effective treatment if necessary of sight threatening diabetic retinopathy, at the appropriate stage during the disease process.
Systematic screening involves digital photography of the retina followed by a two- or three- stage image grading process to identify the changes of sight-threatening diabetic retinopathy in the retina.
Therefore, if you are diabetic please ensure that your attend your diabetic retinopathy screening appointment.
Sight Cymru works in partnership with the Welsh Assembly Government, raising awareness of preventable blindness.
Sight Cymru works hard with BME communities as this particular group is more "at risk" of sight problems, partly due to diet. We attend Health Fairs and roadshows and give presentations to minority groups about healthy lifestyles.
Sight loss can be preventable and the Welsh Eye Care Service (WECS) will allow certain groups to have a free eye health examination if you fall into one of the following groups:
- You have sight in one eye only
- You have a hearing impairment and are profoundly deaf
- You suffer from retinitis pigmentosa
- Your family origins are Black African, Black Carribean, Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi
- You are at risk of eye disease by other reasons of race or family history
- You can ask your GP for a referral to a registered optometirist or you may visit the optometrist yourself and explain why you are entitled to an Eye Health or PEARS eye examination.
For more information visit the Eye Care Wales website (Welsh Eye Care Service)
The Welsh Government provides free eye health screening to groups more at risk of sight loss, and enables people in Wales to get an urgent appointment with the appropriate clinician in the event that there is an emergency problem. Those with sight loss are also entitled to free aids and equipment including magnifiers and other low vision tools. To find the nearest optometrist to you that provides this service, click on the following link: www.wales.nhs.uk/sites3/home.cfm?OrgID=562