In Your Eyes
We don’t tend to focus on the link between our eyesight and our overall health, but we should. If we ignore that connection, we do so at our own risk—especially as we age. Remarkably, our eyes can often provide better insights into our health than dedicated screenings or tests. In part, this is because our eyes are intricately connected to our brain, nervous system, muscular system, and vascular system, but it is also because our eyes are open to non-invasive exploration—readily revealing latent truths about our health.
Among the most complex organs of the body, our eyes can play a critical role in diagnosing a host of specific ailments, including heart, liver, and thyroid disease; brain tumors and Parkinson’s disease; diabetes and sickle cell anemia; multiple sclerosis and various autoimmune diseases; and even aneurysms, hypertension, and cancer.
Through the Looking Glass
A basic vision test only assesses a patient’s vision; it helps determine how well the eyes are performing as they interpret and interact with stimuli in the world. While a vision test is valuable, it should never be confused with a comprehensive, external and internal eye examination. Only a complete exam will yield potentially important insights into the health of the eyes—and the broader health of the patient. This exacting procedure—which must be performed by a doctor of optometry or an ophthalmologist—thoroughly examines the structures of each eye, and includes an analysis of blood vessels, veins, and nerves.
The Importance of Being Earnest (After 60)
Although comprehensive eye exams should be done at regular intervals throughout one’s life, they are particularly valuable for older adults. The American Optometric Association strongly encourages that people aged 60 and older undergo these exams annually. The likelihood of experiencing an illness or sudden attack brought on by high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, skin cancers, brain injuries, and mental health conditions tends to increase with age, and an eye doctor will frequently be the first healthcare professional to note and diagnose these problems. Again, proactive, preventative vigilance is necessary.
Hypertension is a leading indicator for strokes and cardiovascular disease, and the eyes can act as doors to awareness. When pressure in the body’s bloodstream is elevated, the eyes are impacted as well. However, through careful examination of blood vessels in the retina, risk factors can be identified, and then addressed, and—in many cases—halted or reversed.
Although comprehensive eye exams should be done at regular intervals throughout one’s life, they are particularly valuable for older adults. The American Optometric Association strongly encourages that people aged 60 and older undergo these exams annually.
Sweet Dreams Without the Sugar
The retina also holds clues about diabetes, a blood sugar disease that can cause observable damage to tiny, retinal blood vessels. Such damage frequently leads to diabetic retinopathy because blood is no longer ‘nourishing’ the retina. This is a serious condition that can cause total vision loss, so early diagnosis through a comprehensive eye exam can be both a lifesaver and a sight-saver.
Doctors consider our eye’s optic nerve an extension of the brain, so it follows that an examination of the optic nerve could shed light on various neurological conditions. Not only can this help with the detection of Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis, certain brain injuries and mental health problems can be revealed through tests that focus on eye movement and eye coordination. Similar tests measuring peripheral vision and eye muscle function can uncover unusual growths in the eye that are indicative of brain tumors or cancer. As with any serious illness, early knowledge can significantly improve outcomes.
Your Eyes ARE the Prize
Yes, our eyes might be helpful harbingers potentially awakening us to larger health issues, but they are also crucial to the basic fact of our eyesight. Vision is extremely important to our well-being, so eye exams are instrumental in determining the health and condition of our beloved peepers. Past the age of 60, this becomes increasingly urgent, as we grow prone to eye disorders that have few if any initial symptoms:
- Dry Eye: A condition in which a person struggles to produce tears—a common and often chronic problem for older adults.
- Refractive Errors: The flaws of vision that can be corrected with glasses or contacts. Near-sightedness, far-sightedness, astigmatism, and presbyopia (the inability to focus on nearby objects as we age) are all refractive errors. In the US, these are the most common of all eye problems.
- Cataracts: A cloudiness that develops in the lens of an eye that can diminish sensitivities to color, light, and contrast—and increase sensitivities to glare.
- Glaucoma: A disease that damages the optic nerve and slowly encroaches on peripheral vision, potentially leading to total blindness.
- Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD): A center-of-vision loss that can affect one’s everyday life. Peripheral vision is unaffected. Common, daily activities all require good central vision provided by the macula.
- Retinal Detachment: The separation of the retina from the underlying tissue at the back of the eye. Though painless, this is a serious situation that must be dealt with as quickly as possible to avoid permanent vision loss.
Get Thee to an Optometrist
If you are over 60, and you haven’t had a comprehensive eye exam in a few years, consider scheduling an appointment today. Your primary health physician and your dentist are part of your annual health regimen, and your eye doctor should be too. If you know an older adult who could benefit from advice on finding a vision or eye professional, please reach out to AgeWell Cincinnati. The experts at AgeWell Cincinnati can connect you to over 65 services, through 1 number: 513-766-3333.