How to Stay on Top of Your Eye Health

Eye health

In recognition of World Sight Day, we consult an expert on the pressing issues surrounding eye health in the pandemic and the four major eye diseases. Photo: PeopleImages/Getty Images

World Sight Day is October 8, and the Canadian Ophthalmological Society (COS) is reminding Canadians how important it is to stay on top of their eye health. The eyes have it, perhaps even more so now, as masking up puts our peepers in greater focus. Appearances are one thing, but wellness is taking on even greater importance in our lives.

The ability to see is one of our most prized senses. According to COS, when asked to rate their most feared disability, Canadians overwhelmingly agree that they’d rather lose their hearing — or even a limb — rather than their vision. But you may not know that the risk of developing one of the four most common eye diseases — cataracts, age-related macular degeneration (AMD), glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy — is higher than you might think. Almost one in six Canadians are living with one of these four conditions, all of which come with the risk of vision loss. 

“We want to address Canadians more directly when it comes to their eye health,” explains Dr. Phil Hooper, Chair of the Council on Advocacy for the Canadian Ophthalmological Society. “As hard as it might be to imagine, each year, more Canadians are diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration than the number of Canadians with breast cancer, prostate cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s, combined.”

It’s not all doom and gloom, however.  In most cases, says COS, vision loss is preventable and treatable — the key is staying educated about eye health and knowing the signs of eye disease. Need a guide? COS has relaunched its website, featuring online vision tests for visual acuity and AMD along with informational videos and resources, including how to determine your risk. 

Another very important step is early detection. According to COS, healthy adults experiencing normal vision should have their eyes tested at least every 10 years between the ages of 19 and 40; every five years from 41 to 55; every three years from 56 to 65; and adults over the age of 65 should have an eye exam every two years.

And we want to reward you for taking the time to better understand and care for your eye health. COS has partnered with BonLook, a Montreal-based eyewear brand specializing in trendy, affordable prescription eyewear. 

We have 25 x $100 gift certificates to give away, as a way to help shed light on the importance of eye health for World Sight Day.

To enter, simply click here, like the contest post on Facebook and tell us how you’re taking care of your eye health in the comment section.

But that’s not all! We’ve asked Dr. Yvonne M. Buys, professor, Department of Ophthalmology and Vision Sciences at the University of Toronto, to answer some of our most pressing inquiries, from questions concerning macular degeneration to cataracts to seeing a specialist in the time of Covid-19. Buys, the former president of the Canadian Ophthalmological Society, continues to be an active member of the board and is also considered a leading expert in the understanding and treatment of Glaucoma.

Vivian Vassos: It’s more difficult now to see an eye care specialist, due to the restrictions put on us by the pandemic. Have online vision tests become even more important?

Yvonne M. Buys: Firstly, anyone with an urgent vision/eye issue can be seen during the pandemic. Ophthalmology offices for the most part have been open for urgent care. In addition, hospital emergency departments are also open and most hospitals have an ophthalmologist on call. For non-urgent eye care, ophthalmology offices have been reopening to provide in-person care. The number of visits per day, however, are limited to ensure proper physical distancing and to allow extra time to clean the examination room and waiting area. In addition, patients should wear a mask and come alone if possible to help control numbers in the waiting room. Virtual visits are also possible, however, there are some limitations since eye examinations often require specialized equipment and testing that is difficult if not impossible to provide in a virtual setting.

 VV: How does an online vision test actually work? Does it put you in front of a vision care specialist?

YMB: Yes, a virtual examination is done directly with the ophthalmologist. Discussions about any vision concerns and describing any eye discomfort would be similar to an in-person visit. There are also programs that patients can download to measure vision, similar to what is done during an in-person visit. Video assessments or sending a picture of your eye can also provide information. The limitation with virtual exams is measuring eye pressure, looking at the back of the eye (which is required for diseases like macular degeneration and glaucoma) and testing one’s visual field. So, although a virtual examination can provide some information, in many cases it cannot replace an in-person examination. Because we’re working from home, the “office” conditions are different. 

VV: There’s lots of talk about eye strain and the eyes being affected by blue light. Any tips to help with this?

YMB: Symptoms of eye strain include burning, blurring, tearing, red eyes and headaches. Eye strain can be caused by prolonged staring at screens like the computer or TV and reading. A simple way to try to reduce this is the 10-10-10 rule; for every10 minutes of close work, you should look up at something 10 feet away for roughly 10 seconds. Another thing I recommend is to remind yourself to blink more often. These symptoms are often related to a dry eye and can be helped by blinking or using ocular lubricants like artificial tear drops. Some people worry that computer screens emit damaging ultraviolet (UV) light or blue light. But the amount of UV light emitted by computer screens is a fraction of what is emitted from a fluorescent light and is unlikely to damage eyes. 

VV: What are the latest non-invasive, if any, treatments for the four most common eye diseases?

YMB: The four most common eye diseases in Canada, and most developed nations, are cataracts, macular degeneration, glaucoma and diabetes. Cataracts are a natural part of aging and in the early stages updating your glasses can often improve vision. Sunlight might also contribute to cataracts, so wearing sunglasses or a large brimmed hat when in the sun is also a good idea.

For macular degeneration, watching sun exposure could also be beneficial. In addition, having a healthy diet with lots of green leafy vegetables and fish is recommended. For those concerned about their diet there are vitamins for macular degeneration.

In glaucoma, initial treatment is usually eye drops to lower eye pressure and laser. Finally, to reduce the risk of eye disease secondary to diabetes, maintaining good blood sugar control and blood pressure is very important. The most important part of good eye health is routine eye examinations to detect problems early to prevent irreversible vision loss.

VV: Most people still believe that surgery is either for cataracts or to adjust vision, as in laser eye surgery to help see more clearly. How are surgical applications used in treating the other three eye diseases. Can you have surgery for macular degeneration?

YMB: Cataract surgery is probably the most commonly performed surgery worldwide. Within ophthalmology there are, however, many other surgeries including surgeries to lower eye pressure for glaucoma; to reattach the retina in retinal detachments; to remove blood or membranes in the eye, for example in diabetes; to replace the cornea; to realign eyes; to remove tumours; and to change the eyelid position, among many others. For macular degeneration the main procedures are injections in the eye and laser to try to stop the growth and leakage of blood vessels. 

VV: You say that 75 per cent of eye disease is treatable and even preventable, if detected early enough. What’s the time frame on that? Is there a point of no return?

YMB: It is impossible to provide an exact time frame. Cataracts in general are reversible at any time with surgery, however, surgery can be more complicated with advanced cataract. For other eye diseases like macular degeneration, glaucoma and diabetes, by the time the patient is noting vision loss it is often already advanced and may not be reversible. This is why routine eye exams are important, even if you don’t feel there is anything wrong with your eyes — because by the time you notice a problem it may not be reversible. It is recommended that you have an eye exam every three years, for example, for the 56-65 age group, but are there signs we should look for in our own symptoms? Risks?

The bottom line: “If you have any concerns about your eyes or vision you should arrange for an examination and not wait until your next scheduled exam,” says Buys. “In addition, if you have risk factors for eye diseases like a family history of eye disease, or diabetes, you should make sure you have regular eye exams.”

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