Keeping Your Eyes Healthy

Keeping Your Eyes Healthy

When you make an appointment for an eye exam, you might expect your eye care professional to focus solely on the health of your eyes. What you may not realize is that optometrists and ophthalmologists can give you a good sense of your overall general physical health by examining your eyes.

Eye care professionals cannot stress enough the importance of getting annual eye exams. Routine exams are not only helpful in monitoring any changes in your vision, but they are also essential for identifying what Dr. Michelle Andreoli calls “the big vision thieves:” glaucoma, cataracts, and age-related macular degeneration (AMD). These “thieves” can cause irreparable harm even before you notice any vision loss, Dr. Andreoli, an ophthalmologist at Northwestern Medicine and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, said in an interview with AARP.

It’s possible for the “big vision thieves” to develop or be influenced by the following eight bad habits that you may not realize can have an impact on your eyes:

Bad Habit No. 1: Smoking

Smoking is not just bad for your overall health, but it can raise the risk of developing AMD. A large review of studies published in the medical journal, Clinical Interventions in Aging found that people who smoke are at a twofold risk of AMD compared to people who never smoked.

“Smoking reduces the effectiveness of antioxidants and may deplete these levels in the macula,” the small area at the center of the retina that’s necessary to see things in front of you, Dr. Ashley Brissette, an ophthalmologist and assistant professor of ophthalmology at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, told AARP. “Cigarette smoke also reduces the amount of oxygen reaching the tiny blood vessels that supply the eye, leading to vision damage.”

Bad Habit No. 2: Staring at your smartphone, computer screen or TV without giving them a break

Staring at digital screens can lead to chronic dry eye symptoms, according to Dr. Andreoli, who recommends practicing the “20-20-20 rule”: Take a 20-second screen break every 20 minutes to look at something 20 feet away.

Staring at digital screens also affects sleeping patterns because the “brightness of the screen and the activity tells our brain it’s daytime, so we have a tendency not to get appropriately tired,” Andreoli said.

Bad Habit No. 3: Not wearing sunglasses

Ultraviolet radiation from the sun can damage the surface tissues of the eyes, the cornea and lens. Over time, the damage can lead to cataracts, AMD and cancers of the eye.

“You can also develop a sunburn on the eyes called photokeratitis, which can be extremely painful,” Dr. Brissette said.

Bad Habit No. 4: Sleeping in your contact lenses

About 1 in 3 people who wear contacts sleep or nap in their lenses, according to research in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This bad habit can place people at a six- to eightfold risk for contact lens–related eye infections.

Dr. Brissette says that infection can cause permanent scarring of the cornea and loss of vision. “Bacteria and other debris get trapped between the contact lens and the surface of the cornea, so leaving them in too long or past their expiration [puts you at] high risk for developing an infection.”

Bad Habit No. 5: Rubbing your eyes

Rubbing your eyes occasionally to remove grit or soothe irritation or get quick relief from dryness does not harm your eyes. But chronic eye rubbing can damage the cornea, the clear, dome-shaped front surface of your eye.

According to Dr. Andreoli, chronic eye rubbing can lead to uncommon cornea disease, including keratoconus, a condition that causes the cornea to thin out and bulge like a cone. This can blur and distort your vision.

Bad Habit No. 6: Sleeping with your makeup on

It’s okay to sleep in your makeup once in a while. But, if you make a habit of it, you’re increasing the risk of developing an eye infection, such as a sty—a painful lump that grows from the base of your eyelash or under the eyelid.

What you use to take off your makeup is also important. “Oil-based remover can exacerbate some dry eye symptoms because they deposit a ton of oil in the tears,” Dr. Andreoli said.

Bad Habit No. 7: Heavy drinking

Heavy drinking is not only bad for your physical health, it’s bad for your eyes, too. “Some of the most damaging effects on vision are from extremely high levels of alcohol or chronic alcohol abuse,” Dr. Brissette said. “Toxic blood alcohol levels can permanently damage the optic nerve and vision centers.” 

A review of studies published in the Journal of Ophthalmic & Vision Research in 2021 found that chronic alcohol consumption raises the risk of a number of eye conditions, including cataracts, AMD, diabetic retinopathy, and various types of optic neuropathy.

Bad Habit No. 8: Skimping on nutrients

Eating nutrient-rich foods are good for the eyes, as well as for losing weight and improving your overall health.

Nutrients that Support Eye Health

It’s possible to break these bad habits by eating foods with potent nutrients that support eye health. Carrots, for example, are well-known for supporting eye health because they contain antioxidants and are rich in beta carotene.

“Beta-carotene is beneficial because the body converts it to vitamin A, which is essential for good vision,” Roxana Ehsani, a Miami-based registered dietitian explained in an interview with Real Simple.

Both the American Optometric Association and the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommend the following key nutrients to support eye health:

  • Lutein and zeaxanthin: These two antioxidants found in green leafy vegetables, such as kale, broccoli, and spinach, have been linked to lowering the risk of cataracts and other chronic eye diseases.
  • Vitamin C: This powerful antioxidant can slow the progression of age-related macular degeneration and visual acuity loss. The vitamin can be found in a variety of fruits and vegetables, including oranges, strawberries, and broccoli.
  • Vitamin E: This potent antioxidant protects healthy eye tissue from free radical damage. The vitamin is found in vegetable oils, nuts, and vegetables, like sweet potatoes.
  • Zinc: This essential mineral, found in seafood, meats, nuts, and egg yolks, can protect against impaired vision and cataracts.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: These essential fatty acids are found in salmon, tuna and other fatty fish, as well as nuts and seeds. Omega-3s have been found to reduce the risk of dry eye, inflammation of the eyelids or surfaces of the eye. The fatty acids also support visual development and tear glands.

Dr. Brissette recommends following the Mediterranean diet for overall eye health. “That’s what we have the best evidence for in terms of being beneficial for eye health—specifically, foods rich in vitamins A, C and E, lutein, zeaxanthin and omegas,” she said. “It’s always better to get our nutrients from whole food sources rather than from supplements, if possible.”

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