Summer is in full swing, and by now you’ve probably put in a lot of hours outdoors. After being cooped up for what seemed an unending winter, I know I had a bit of cabin fever and couldn’t wait to spend some time in nature. In a recent column, we addressed the importance of skin protection to prevent cancer and limit age-related skin diseases. But I don’t want you to forget about another very important organ that needs protection from UV rays: your eyes.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cataracts are the leading cause of blindness in all countries of the world. Although the exact cause of cataracts is unknown, there are many risk factors that increase your risk of developing this type of vision disturbance. Among them:
- excessive exposure to sunlight
- tobacco use
- diabetes (especially if uncontrolled)
- increasing age
- high blood pressure
- excessive alcohol use
So what can you do to prevent vision loss from cataracts?
The first step (and probably the easiest) is to invest in a pair of UV-blocking sunglasses. These will decrease the damage caused by UVB rays. Keep them handy, and be sure to wear them while out for a walk, at the beach, when driving, or any other time you’ll be exposed to the sun for a prolonged period. Other tips:
- Do everything in your power to STOP SMOKING. A 2011 study published in Preventing Chronic Disease concluded, “Smoking is linked to self-reported visual impairment among older adults with age-related eye diseases, particularly cataracts…” Not only will quitting smoking decrease your risk of vision loss, it will also prevent further damage to your lungs and reduce the likelihood of developing cancers of the lung, breast and bladder.
- Maintain a healthy weight. For two-thirds of us, that means we have some work to do! Learn your body mass index (or BMI) by entering your height and weight into an online calculator like the one at www.cdc.gov/healthyweight. A BMI above 25 is considered overweight; anything above 30 qualifies as obese. For weight loss, as well as disease prevention, choose a diet that is heavy in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats. Limit red meat, pork, lunch meats, dairy products and eggs. Drink lots of water, and avoid sugar sweetened beverages, including fruit juice, soda, sweet tea, lemonade and sports drinks.
- Be proactive about your chronic health conditions, especially diabetes and hypertension. If you take medications to control your medical problems, administer them faithfully as directed by your physician. Use the dietary guidelines mentioned above to lose weight or maintain a healthy BMI.
- Finally, see your ophthalmologist of optometrist on an annual basis. Routine screening can lead to early detection of many causes of vision loss.
For more information about cataracts, visit the National Eye Institute’s website at www.nei.nih.gov.
Dr. Jacqueline Riedel is a Family Medicine physician and a member of the Kennedy Health Alliance. She practices in West Deptford, NJ, and can be reached by calling 856-384-0210.