Beyond the Scope: Women's Eye Health
Women are at a greater risk for eye problems. Here's what you should know about prevention and treatment.
We women know: Our eyes are our most alluring feature. What we may not know is that our eyes are more at risk for disease and even blindness. Women account for two-thirds of the people with visual impairment and blindness even though they represent only 53 percent of the population, according to Prevent Blindness America, which has designated April as Women’s Eye Health and Safety Month.
While women face many eye-health risks, the following have the highest prevalence:
- Cataracts—61 percent
- Glaucoma—61 percent
- Age-related macular degeneration—65 percent
There are many factors and differences between men and women that put women at greater risk for eye disease. Some are intrinsically more common to women while others are due to predisposition to disease and lifestyle choices.
- Longevity. Plain and simple, we live longer than men. And the older we get the more things start breaking down, putting us at risk for any number of age-related maladies.
- Autoimmune diseases. More women than men have autoimmune diseases, which often start during childbearing years, according to www.womenshealth.gov. These include multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and Sjogren’s syndrome.
- Multiple sclerosis can affect the optic nerve, causing blurred vision, double vision or loss of contract or vivid colors. Lupus can cause blood vessel changes in the retina as well as inflammation of the whites of the eyes. People with rheumatoid arthritis are also at risk for Sjogren’s syndrome, which attacks tear-producing glands, causing eyes to become dry. This can lead to infection and scarring of the conjunctiva and cornea.
- Diabetes. About half of the 24 million Americans with diabetes are women, according to www.womenshealth.gov. Diabetes can cause changes in the blood vessels of the retina as well as an increased risk for cataracts and glaucoma.
- Hormones. Pregnancy, menopause and hormone replacement therapy can all affect a woman’s eye health. Pregnancy can bring on dry-eye syndrome, blurred vision, high blood pressure and worsen diabetic retinopathy. Menopause and the hormone replacement therapy used to treat the symptoms can both cause dry eyes.
- Smoking. Smoking can increase the risk for developing age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.
- Lifestyle. Obesity, an unhealthy diet and lack of exercise can all affect a woman’s overall health, including eye health. More than 60 percent of American women are overweight, and a little more than a third of those are considered obese, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
Tips for Better Eye Health
You can’t change your DNA or stop the aging process but there are steps you can take to minimize your risk for eye disease, says Dr. Linen J. Pok, an optometrist with Christiana Care Health System.
- If you smoke, quit.
- See your eye care professional every one to two years—every year if you wear contact lenses. Regular eye exams can spot small problems before they become larger ones. “People think that if they can see they don’t need an eye exam,” says Pok. “Fifty percent is do you see well, the other 50 percent is your eye health, the structures of your eye.” A thorough eye exam can also detect problems like high blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes.
- Eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly. Exercise reduces the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. A diet rich in the phytonutrients lutein and zeaxanthin, can help maintain eye health. “Our bodies don’t synthesize (these nutrients),”says Pok. “We need to get them from out diet.”
- Take care with contact lenses. Pok recommends using reputable brands of contact lens solutions and to manually clean the lenses after removing them. Additionally, change the case at least once every three months. It’s also advisable to limit wearing time to 15 hours maximum or whatever is recommended by your eye care professional.
- Ditto for eye makeup. Pok recommends using high-quality brands and to invest in a good eye makeup remover. “Soap and water just won’t cut it,” she says. Failure to adequately remove eye makeup can clog the eye’s tear-producing glands.
- Wear sunglasses and avoid tanning salons. All women should wear sunglasses with 100 percent UV protection whenever they’re outdoors—and the younger they start, the better. “They need to make it a habit, 365 days a year, rain or shine, UV rays are still coming through,” says Pok. Additionally, studies show that tanning beds can produce UV levels up to 100 times what you would get from the sun, This can cause serious damage to the internal and external structures of both the eye and the eyelid, says Pok.