We all know that a healthy lifestyle is good for our hearts, but did you know that it is also the key to good eye health? And it’s not just what we eat and whether we smoke or drink too much alcohol – protecting our eyes from the sun is just as important as protecting our skin from the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation. Two of our most common eye diseases, cataracts and macular degeneration, are linked to lifestyle and sun exposure. Here we cover what cataracts and macular degeneration are and offer some simple tips on how to reduce your risk or slow the progression of these sight-threatening conditions.


What are cataracts and what are the symptoms?
The lens inside our eye is normally clear, allowing light to pass through it onto our retinas (back of the eye) to form a clear image. Over time, proteins in the lens can start to clump together, making the lens go hazy, or opaque. This can cause our vision to become cloudy and affect how we see colours. In the early stages it can cause blurred vision, seeing haloes around lights and difficulty reading or driving (particularly at night). It can affect one or both eyes and without treatment can cause vision loss.

What are the causes?
Most cataracts are classified as “age-related”; in fact around 50% of Australians over the age of 50 have cataracts and almost everyone will have them by the age of 80. More and more research, however, is suggesting that lifestyle factors may be playing a role in this. You may be at higher risk for developing cataracts if you:

  • Smoke
  • Drink alcohol above the recommended limits (10 standard drinks per week)
  • Have had lifelong sun exposure, especially without eye protection. Around the world, roughly 5% of cataracts are thought to be due to sun exposure, here in Australia it is possibly double that
  • Have diabetes
  • Have a family history of cataracts
  • Have had an eye injury, eye surgery or certain cancer treatments
  • Take long term oral steroids

Treatment and Prevention
Luckily, cataracts can be treated with surgery, during which your cloudy lens is removed and replaced by a new, artificial lens. Of course prevention, or delaying the age of onset, is worthwhile too! See our top tips below for more details on how to reduce your risk.

Macular degeneration

What is macular degeneration and what are the symptoms?
Macular degeneration, also known as age-related macular degeneration (ARMD), occurs when the macula, a specialised part of the retina (back of the eye) becomes increasingly damaged, leading to a progressive and painless loss of central vision. Peripheral vision is usually left intact, but without adequate central vision we lose our ability to read, drive, watch TV and recognise faces. It’s a serious condition affecting 1 in 7 Australians over the age of 50 and is responsible for at least half of all blindness and severe vision loss.

What are the causes?
The biggest risk factor for ARMD is age, but it is far from a normal or inevitable consequence of ageing. Family history is also significant: you have a 50% chance of getting it if you have an affected parent or sibling.

You may also be at greater risk if you:

  • Smoke
  • Are overweight or obese
  • Have an unhealthy lifestyle with inadequate exercise and poor nutrition
  • Have cardiovascular disease (including high blood pressure)
  • Don’t protect your eyes regularly from the sun
  • Don’t get regular eye examinations

Treatment and prevention
Unlike with cataracts, there is no cure for AMRD. Some aggressive forms of the disease can be treated with specialised eye injections but for most cases, regular eye check-ups, weight control and a healthy lifestyle are the key to slowing the progression of the disease. Some supplements may also be beneficial particularly if your diet is inadequate – check with your doctor if these might be right for you. See our top tips below for more details on how to reduce your risk.

Top tips for keeping your eyes healthy

  • Eat well and exercise regularly
    Controlling your weight and any health conditions like diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease is vital for eye health. Key nutrients for eyes are lutein, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, vitamins C and E and other antioxidants found in a balanced diet with lots of variety. Focus on green leafy vegetables, fruits such as citrus and berries, salmon, tuna and other oily fish at least twice a week, other seafood like oysters and shellfish, nuts, seeds, eggs and dairy products.A Mediterranean diet is the ideal diet for eye health. The MD Foundation has some wonderful resources including a free Mediterranean Macula Menu plan! See below for the link. Some supplements may be useful, check with your doctor.
  • Quit smoking
    Need we say more? See your GP if you need help quitting. It can take multiple attempts, so keep trying!
  • If you drink alcohol, keep it to safe levels
    See our article in the last newsletter for advice on the new guidelines and how to cut down.
  • Protect your eyes from the sun
    Wear sunglasses (meeting Australian standards), whenever you are outdoors or driving, even on a cloudy day. Wrap around styles give the best protection. This is particularly important where reflected light can be intense such as around water, sand or snow. Don’t forget the kids – proper eye protection from an early age is important. Wear a broad-brimmed hat and seek shade during the middle of the day when the UV radiation is at its highest.
  • Get regular eye check-ups by an optometrist or ophthalmologist
    This is generally recommended from childhood, to pick up any signs of eye problems early and especially if there is a family history. It is also important as we get older, every 1-2 years is the current recommendation. Many eye conditions can be better managed if detected early. Of course, if you are having any eye symptoms you should have an eye examination as soon as possible.

There are many other conditions of the eye that can benefit from the above lifestyle improvements. If you are not sure whether you are at risk or need to make some changes, please see your GP, we can help.

Photo by David Travis on Unsplash

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