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You slip on sunglasses as soon as the temperature hits 70 and remove your mascara nightly. Aside from showing up for appointments more regularly, you should be covered when it comes to eye health, right? Not exactly. According to Richard Davidson, MD, professor of ophthalmology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, “everything from being a couch potato to skimping on sleep can impact your eye health.” Keep your vision sharp by getting all the facts about what harms and helps your eyes in every decade of your life.
In your 20s
Chances are you tuck your shades away with your bathing suit at summer’s end. Only 21% of American adults always wear sunglasses. But your eyes need protection year-round. Long-term ultraviolet exposure can cause cataracts and macular degeneration. “UV light filters through the clouds,” says Mina Massaro, MD, professor of clinical ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. “Even on a cloudy day, you should wear sunglasses. Ten o’clock to four o’clock—the same hours you’re prone to sunburn—are crucial all year.”
If you wear glasses, choose photochromic lenses, such as Transitions, LifeRx or PhotoFusion. They respond to UV light, darkening to provide protection, lightening when out of the sun. Otherwise, wear regular over-the-counter sunglasses with UV protection year-round. Check labels for shades that protect against 99% to 100% of UV light, or “up to 400 nm.” If you spend a lot of time near bodies of water, you may want to invest in sunglasses with polarized lenses, which are treated with a light-filtering chemical that reduces reflected glare. Make sure they also have UV protection; polarization doesn’t guard against UV rays by itself.
Get moving and you’ll help your eye health by maintaining an ideal body weight. Obesity ups your risk of diabetes and hypertension, which are linked to sight-stealing problems like diabetic retinopathy and hypertensive retinopathy. Some research even suggests that exercise is associated with a lower risk of macular degeneration and glaucoma. “You don’t have to join a gym,” says Karen Morgan, MD, clinical professor of ophthalmology at the Keck School of Medicine of University of Southern California. “Just avoid a sedentary lifestyle. If there’s an elevator, use the stairs instead.”
In your 30s
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If you spend hours every day scrolling through your Facebook feed and scouring spreadsheets, it can harm your eyes. “Each time you blink, tears cover the surface of your eye with the necessary oils plus water to hydrate your eye, ” says Morgan. “When you’re viewing a screen, you’re not blinking as often and your eyes become dried out.” That can cause blurry vision, eyestrain, headaches and dry eye (or computer vision syndrome). The longer you stare, the worse the problem may become.
Tweak screen habits to minimize symptoms: Turn off overhead fluorescent lights, which create glare. Place a humidifier in the room. Ergonomically adjust your work space so you’re looking slightly down at your screen (to keep lids partly shut). Or use apps like EyeLeo, Stretchly or 20.20.20 Eye Protection to remind yourself to take breaks and blink more often.
Juggling work and family may make it challenging to get enough rest, but prioritizing shut-eye reduces bloodshot eyes, dry eye, blurry vision and eye muscle twitching. “Sleep is your body’s way of restoring itself,” says Davidson. “And good sleep is just as important for your eyes as it is for the rest of your body.”
Always remove contacts before bed, even if they’re sleep-approved. If your eyes ache when you awaken, your lids may not be closing properly. Without a perfect seal, the exposed portions of your eyes can dry out overnight, causing burning and redness. Try applying ointment, like GenTeal Tears or Lacri-Lube, or wearing a special sleep mask, like Tranquileyes or Onyix.
In your 40s
As you approach menopause, your metabolism isn’t the only thing going haywire. Your eyes may burn more, appear red, give you sharp pains and feel gritty, like there’s dirt in them—all symptoms of dry eye, which develops because your eyes are producing lesser-quality tears. Air-conditioning or heating systems can make it worse.
Thankfully, artificial tears can improve the situation—just don’t overdo it by using them more than six times a day. “You may start to react to the preservatives,” explains Massaro, who recommends opting for preservative-free formulas instead. You might also try omega-3-rich fish oil supplements (1,000 mg daily) or prescription medications like Restasis or Xiidra to relieve dryness.
At 40, your primary care physician should suggest you see an ophthalmologist every two to four years, or more often if you have diabetes or a family history of macular degeneration or glaucoma. Your ophthalmologist will dilate your pupils to examine the optic nerve, retina and other structures for early signs of these often-silent diseases so you can treat them early. They’ll screen for other problems too. “For example, you can get moles in the back part of the eye that no one can see except an ophthalmologist,” Massaro says. “They’re benign 99% of the time, but once in a while, they can turn into a melanoma.”
Photo by Erika Layne
In your 50s
High blood pressure
Nearly 40% of women ages 45 to 64 have hypertension—and doctors now flag pressure at 120/80 as elevated. “High blood pressure can negatively impact the blood vessels of the eye and cause vision loss,” Davidson says. “You may get bleeding in the back of the eye or ischemic optic neuropathy, where the blood pressure could be so high that it pinches off the vessel to the optic nerve.” Hypertension often goes hand in hand with diabetes, which affects 11 million Americans ages 45 to 64. Diabetic retinopathy can lead to blindness if left uncontrolled. Visit your PCP to monitor blood pressure and blood-sugar levels.
Your eyes contain a significant amount of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), the same type of omega-3 fatty acid found in fish and seafood. Increasing your omega-3 consumption may ward off or improve eye problems. One study found that eating omega-3-rich fish weekly protected against macular degeneration. Add big-hitters like salmon or tuna to your menu once or twice a week (or smaller ones like shrimp occasionally). For severe dry eye, take 1,000 mg of omega-3 ethyl esters one to three times per day, Morgan says. One thousand mg of flaxseed oil, which is rich in a different type of omega-3 fatty acid (ALA), once or twice daily may also help.