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The Windows to the soul: taking care of our most important sense

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The eyes are the window to the soul. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Look before you leap. You’re the apple of my eye. My eyes are bigger than my stomach.

Many idioms and common phrases include our eyes, or some connection to seeing. And, it’s no wonder, because our eyes are an important part of how we receive information from the world around us.

During May, designated as Vision Health month, optometrists spend a little extra time focusing on this small part of the body, but an important one.

“I always find it incredibly frustrating when people take their vision for granted,” said Doctors Vision Centre Senior Optometrist Dawn Dunford, who has been practicing in Manitoba since January 2000. “They skip exams, ignore problems, buy cheap junk off the internet, you name it.

“It’s been estimated that we take in more than 80 percent of all the information in our lives through our eyes, so why would people mess with that? Vision is, by far, our most important sense.”

It is very important to regularly visit the optometrist for a routine eye exam, as it screens for vision problems but often other health problems can be found during the screening.

“Children from birth to age 19 should have their eyes examined yearly,” said Parkland Vision Services Optometrist Tim Watters. “Adults from 19 to 65 should be examined every two years, and adults over 65 should be seen yearly.

“The exception is someone with a family history of eye disease or anyone with a systemic disease that can affect the eyes, in which case, they should be seen on an appropriate schedule.”

Dunford adds that the North American average between exams is 27 months, which is longer than recommended, and sudden changes in vision can happen in a surprisingly short period of time.

“There are many types of vision problems,” she said. “Most people think of going blind, cataracts, or needing glasses, but there are many other harder to find problems.

“Vision problems are sometimes known as the ‘hidden disability’ where it’s estimated that 25 percent of juvenile delinquents have an undiagnosed vision problem, which results in a learning disability, which leads to trouble in school and eventually brushes with the law.”

Watters adds that most people will have a vision problem at some point in their life.

“A person may need eyeglasses or vision therapy to see correctly in school,” he said. “As we age, most people will need glasses to read, and many people have some type of eye disease in later years.”

During a routine exam, optometrists check for things like refractive errors, which need to be corrected so a person can see distance or near. They also look for eye coordination problems, which would require vision therapy.

“The purpose of a comprehensive eye exam is to look at all aspects of eye health,” said Dunford. “Unfortunately, most people think it’s only about finding out if they need glasses or not, and if they do, what their prescription is.

“But, we check everything about the eye, including glaucoma, peripheral visual field loss, retinal health, eyelid and lash health, and the outside and inside of the eye.”

But, the news isn’t all bad.

“The earlier a vision problem is caught, the more options there are to treat and possibly reverse the disease,” said Dunford.

“Unfortunately, some diseases, like age-related macular degeneration (ARMD) cannot be reversed once it starts, and we can only hope to slow down the progression of the disease.”

Watters added that it is like taking care of our other physical needs in terms of early diagnosis which means a higher treatment success rate.

In addition to the many vision and eye health conditions an optometrist finds during an exam, they can also often find signs of other health issues.

“You’d be surprised what other health problems can be found during an exam,” said Dunford.

“I’ve found brain tumours, Beta Cell Lymphoma, Lyme Disease, Stargardt’s, Axenfeld anomalies, Basal Cell Carcinoma (skin cancer), and Multiple Sclerosis, to name a few.”

However, the two most common health problems found during an eye examination are hypertension (high blood pressure) and diabetes.

“Sometimes, medications to treat systemic disease can also harm the eye, so an examination can diagnose any problems related to the medications,” added Watters.

Because of the importance of healthy eyes, it is important to see the optometrist on a regular basis.

“A child should have their first examination between six and nine months of age,” said Watters, noting that if a parent notices anything out of the ordinary, the exam should be sooner.

Dunford added that eye exams for children under 19 are covered by Manitoba Health so there is no cost to the parents to bring their child in.

As the eyes age, new problems can begin to show up, including cataracts, glaucoma and ARMD.

“With cataracts, people will start to find their vision foggy, have problems seeing at night, and notice halos around lights,” said Watters.

“With glaucoma, you don’t really see anything in the initial stages of the disease, but later on, people may notice they have limited side vision. With ARMD, the central vision is what goes.”

Because these things can be treated when found, it’s very important to have regular check-ups.

“If someone, especially the elderly, notices blurry vision, double vision, watery or sore eyes, sharp pains or headaches, the best advice I can give is to have their eyes checked as quickly as possible,” said Dunford. “I have had too many patients wait to see if things would get better and it leads to more problems.”

Along with routine exams, there are a number of things you can do to maintain healthy eyes.

“People can protect their eyes, by wearing safety glasses to protect the eyes from trauma, and good sunglasses outside to protect the eyes from ultraviolet light and high intensity blue light, which contribute to cataracts and ARMD,” said Watters.

“Our diet is also important and should include lots of fruits and vegetables, including dark, leafy greens and colourful vegetables. Omega-3’s are also important, and can be found in wild caught salmon and flax.”

All in all, because vision is so important to our everyday lives, it’s crucial to take care of your eyes, so take the time to call the optometrist and make your appointment. You never know what benefit it will be in the long run.

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Jessica Bergen
REPORTER
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