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Women's Eye Health: What You Need to Know About Higher Risks

April is Women's Eye Health & Safety Month. Why devote extra attention to the issue?

Women are at greater risk for some eye diseases than men. According to recent studies published in The Lancet Global Health, women carry the greater burden of visual impairment for the majority of diseases studied. There are several potential reasons for this, and we need more research to sort out the causes, but it is vitally important to protect your vision by understanding the risks and taking steps to keep your eyes healthy.

Women's Eye Health, a website written by and for women and produced in partnership with the National Eye Health Education Program and Women in Ophthalmology, offers helpful insights and detailed explanations of the eye diseases and conditions that affect women in more significant numbers.

Moran Eye Center physician-researcher Mary Elizabeth Hartnett, MD, editor of Women's Eye Health, shares some of the information you'll discover on the website:

What are the leading causes of blindness and low vision among women?

Worldwide, more women than men are blind or have low vision because of cataracts and age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Dry eye disease and autoimmune diseases also appear more frequently in women than in men.

Do we know why women have higher rates of eye diseases?

We don't yet have all the answers, but in the United States, women, on average, live longer than men. This means they are more likely to experience the more common, serious, age-related diseases, specifically AMD. However, even when studies adjust for age, women bear the burden of vision loss for AMD.

What can women do to protect their eyesight?

Since we estimate three-fourths of all blindness and vision loss is either curable or preventable, that's a great question. The lifestyle choices we make can reduce our risk for eye disease, and they are not that dramatic. Here are some of the basics:

  • Don't smoke. Smoking is linked to several eye diseases, including AMD, cataracts, glaucoma, and Fuchs endothelial corneal dystrophy, a rare condition that results in cloudy vision. Smoking also is linked to retinal vascular occlusions or strokes, and may worsen diabetic retinopathy.
  • Eat a healthy diet. The same dietary tips that help protect your heart also protect your eyes. Two carotenoids—lutein and zeaxanthin—are present in the retina and the lens of the eye. Scientists believe that eating foods that contain them can delay the light- and oxidative-induced damage that leads to AMD and cataracts. You'll find these compounds in dark green, leafy vegetables, and several fruits. Lutein is also available in some dietary supplements. Include salmon, tuna, and other oily fish, eggs, nuts, and beans in your diet as well.
  • Wear sunglasses and a hat with a brim whenever you're outside and remember you're exposed to ultraviolet light on cloudy days, too. Exposure to strong sunlight for extended periods may be associated with AMD and cataracts.
  • Schedule regular comprehensive eye exams, especially after age 40. Many causes of vision loss are age-related. Your ophthalmologist can spot early signs of several conditions by looking at the back of your eye and keeping tabs on any changes from year to year.
  • Know your family's health history and if you find an eye disease runs in your family, make sure your eye-care professional checks for early signs of the disease. Often you can do something to prevent or slow the disease. This is particularly true for glaucoma, which sneaks up with no warning signs and does its damage quietly.
  • Make a habit of wearing protective eyewear (goggles) when you play sports, do yard work, clean or work with chemicals, or are around fireworks - really any activity in which something could have access to and injure your eye.

What else do we need to know?

There's so much more, including learning about symptoms of various eye conditions. We go into all of that on the Women's Eye Health website.

In general, the symptoms that should trigger one to be examined include loss of vision, distortion or blurred vision, including the side or peripheral vision, in either eye, light flashes, or floaters.

If you have a family history of eye disease, it is especially important that you are examined at a regular appointment and to alert your eye care provider of your family history. Some conditions are genetic or run in families, such as glaucoma, AMD, and retinal detachments.

Vision changes as we age, so you may also want to investigate improving your vision with eyeglasses or contact lenses or safe surgical procedures such as LASIK or PRK.

The more women know about their unique risks, the better. In between your regular eye exams, pay attention. If you experience pain or irritation, or anything unusual in your field of vision, get it checked out.