When you think about your health, don’t forget your eyes

Many people lack an understanding of some of the most serious eye diseases.

I recall vividly that late Friday afternoon when my eye pressure spiked and I staggered on foot to my ophthalmologist’s office as the rapidly thickening fog shrouded passing cars and traffic lights in my field of vision.

Although the office had already closed, the entire eye care team was waiting for me. One of them pricked my eyeballs with a sharp instrument, allowing the accumulated ocular fluid to drain. That helped to relieve the pressure and restore my vision.

But it was the fourth spike in vision-impairing pressure in nine days, and they were afraid it would happen again — right before the weekend. So I went to the ER and spent the night hooked up to an intravenous tube that delivered a powerful anti-swelling agent.

When I later told this story to friends and colleagues, some of them didn’t understand the significance of eye pressure or what it was. “I didn’t know they could measure blood pressure in your eyes,” one of them said.

Most people consider their vision to be critical, but many are unaware of some of the most serious eye diseases. Based on an online national poll, a 2016 study published in JAMA Ophthalmology found that nearly half of respondents feared losing their eyesight more than losing their memory, speech, hearing, or limbs. Despite this, many people “were unaware of important eye diseases,” according to the study.

According to a study published this month by Wakefield Research for the nonprofit Prevent Blindness and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, one-quarter of adults considered at risk for retinal diseases such as macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy delayed seeking care for vision problems.

“There is significantly less emphasis placed on eye health than on general health,” says Rohit Varma, founder of the Southern California Eye Institute at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center.

Varma says that because eye diseases can be painless and progress slowly, “people get used to it, and as they age, they begin to feel, ‘Oh, this is a normal part of aging, and it’s OK.'” He claims that if people were in severe pain, they would seek medical attention.

However, for many people, getting an eye exam or treatment is difficult. Millions are uninsured, others cannot afford their share of the cost, and many live in areas with a scarcity of eye doctors.

“Just because people realize they need care doesn’t mean they can afford it or have access to it,” says Jeff Todd, CEO and president of Prevent Blindness.

Another issue that reflects the divide between eye care and general health care is that, with the exception of children, medical insurance frequently only covers eye care aimed at diagnosing or treating diseases. Routine eye exams are now covered by more health plans, but this does not usually include the type of test used to determine eyeglass and contact lens prescriptions — or the cost of the lenses. You may need to obtain separate vision insurance for this. Inquire with your health insurance provider about what is covered.

I’ve had more pressure checks, eye exams, eyedrops, and laser surgeries than I can remember since being diagnosed with glaucoma 15 years ago. I should know better than to take my vision for granted. Even so, when my eyes were filled with that vision-threatening fog last March, I felt oddly upbeat.

Those serial pressure spikes were caused by an adverse reaction to steroid-based eyedrops prescribed to me after cataract surgery. My ophthalmologist later told me that I was “within hours” of losing my vision.

I hope that my experience with blindness will inspire others to be more aware of their surroundings.

By correcting refractive errors, which affect 150 million Americans, eyeglasses or contact lenses can make a significant difference in one’s quality of life. However, don’t dismiss the possibility of far more serious eye conditions that can sneak up on you. If caught early enough, they are frequently manageable.

Glaucoma, which affects approximately 3 million people in the United States, first affects peripheral vision and can cause irreversible damage to the optic nerve. It runs in families and affects African Americans five times more than the general population.

Diabetic retinopathy, a complication of diabetes in which blood vessels in the retina are damaged, affects nearly 10 million people in the United States. Macular degeneration, a retinal disease associated with aging that reduces central vision over time, affects approximately 20 million people aged 40 and up.

Cataracts, which cause cloudiness in the natural lens of the eye, are very common as people age: half of people 75 and older have them. Cataracts can cause blindness, but they are easily treated surgically.

Put a comprehensive eye exam on your to-do list if you’re over 40 and haven’t had one in a long time, if ever. Also, if you have diabetes, a family history of glaucoma, or are African American or another racial or ethnic group at high risk for certain eye diseases, get an exam at a younger age.

Don’t forget about the kids.Children can be affected by a variety of eye conditions. Refractive errors, which can be corrected with corrective lenses, can cause impairment later in life if not addressed early enough.

Healthy lifestyle choices are also beneficial to your eyes. “Anything that improves your general health helps your vision,” says Andrew Iwach, clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology and executive director of the Glaucoma Center of San Francisco.

Consider the following habits to protect your eyes from harm: When going outside, wear sunglasses, take frequent breaks from your computer screen and cellphone, and wear goggles when working around the house or playing sports.

Prevent Blindness’ website provides information on virtually every aspect of eye health, including insurance. The American Academy of Ophthalmology’s “EyeSmart” website and the National Eye Institute are also excellent resources.

So read up and share what you discover.

“When you get together for the holidays,” Iwach advises, “if you aren’t sure what to talk about, talk about your eyes.”

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