From birth to bifocals, our eyes play a significant role in the quality of our lives. When you consider how much we depend on our eyes to navigate and make sense of the world, it’s staggering to know somewhere in the world someone goes blind every five seconds. Of the 119 million people in the United States who are age 40 or over, 3.4 million are visually impaired or blind, according to EyeCare America, the Foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. This level of blindness and visual impairment costs more than $4 billion annually in benefits and lost income.

Blink

Oh, and by the way, 80 percent of all blindness is preventable or curable. So how do you avoid life-altering vision and/or health problems? The answer is a periodic comprehensive dilated eye exam. It is a painless procedure in which an eye care professional examines your eyes to look for common vision problems and eye diseases, many of which have no early warning signs. Periodic eye examinations can also uncover systemic disease, such as diabetes, vascular disease and multiple sclerosis, just to name a few, before you experience any overt symptoms. “I have identified everything from tumors and strokes to multiple sclerosis and cancer with eye exams,” says ophthalmologist and president of the Bexar County Medical Society, Roberto San Martin, M.D., M.S., FACS. “Early detection is crucial to preserve vision and prevent illness or premature death.”

What You Can Expect During A Comprehensive Exam

As with an annual health physical, it makes sense to visit an ophthalmologist (eye M.D.) for a routine eye exam that includes a series of tests to assess acuity, refractive error and potential eye disease.

The exam starts with your medical and eye health history, including any noticeable eye problems. Next he or she will evaluate your visual acuity by determining the smallest letters you can read on a standardized eye chart.

Your eye M.D. will also test for refractive errors (nearsightedness, farsightedness, astigmatism and presbyopia). A refractive error means your eye doesn’t refract light properly because it is an abnormal shape, so the image is blurred. Although refractive errors are called eye disorders, they are not diseases.

Many people will have one or more of these refractive errors. In fact, a recent study by the National Eye Institute found that more than 11 million Americans have one or more of these common vision problems. The good news is refractive errors are usually corrected with glasses, contact lenses or refractive surgery.

An eye M.D. will also test:

Eyelid health and function
Coordination of eye muscles
Pupil response to light
Side, or peripheral, vision
The pressure inside the eye
The area in front of the lens, including the cornea and iris
The interior and back of the eye, including the retina
After the exam the doctor will discuss the results with you. If there is any eye disease, treatments with medication, including eyedrops, may be recommended.

In some cases, certain eye diseases require laser surgery or other surgical procedures. Some of the treatments are taken care of by your regular eye M.D. Or you may be referred to a subspecialist, such as a cornea or retina specialist.

Dr. Sharon Sra, a comprehensive ophthalmologist at Ophthalmology Associates of San Antonio, can attest to how pivotal regular eyes exams can be to overall health. “One of my patients, a 46-year-old woman with diabetes, came in for her annual eye exam. She wasn’t aware of any problems with her eyes. However, after I examined her, I found the vision in her left eye was decreased and she had some subtle optic nerve changes. I ordered some additional tests, including an MRI of her brain. It revealed a pituitary tumor compressing the optic nerves,” recounts Dr. Sra. “I sent her promptly to a neurosurgeon to have the tumor removed. Her vision was restored, and she’s doing great. If she hadn’t come in for her annual exam, who knows what kind of vision loss and neurologic complications she might have experienced?”

“Early detection is crucial to preserve vision and prevent illness or premature death.” — Roberto San Martin, M.D., M.S., FACS, ophthalmologist and president of the Bexar County Medical Society

How Often Should You Have A Comprehensive Eye Exam?

Age 20 to 39

Most young adults have healthy eyes, but they still need to take care of their vision by wearing protective eyewear when playing sports, doing yard work, working with chemicals or taking part in other activities that could cause an eye injury. Have a complete eye exam at least once between the ages of 20 and 29 and at least twice between the ages of 30 and 39.

Also, be aware of symptoms that could indicate a problem. See an eye M.D. if you experience any eye conditions, such as:

Visual changes or pain
Flashes of light
Seeing spots or ghost-like images
Lines appearing distorted or wavy
Dry eyes with itching and burning
Age 40+

If you’re an adult with no risk factors or signs of eye disease, the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends a baseline eye-disease screening at age 40 — the time when early signs of disease and changes in vision may start to occur.

Major risk factors for eye problems include:

Family history of eye problems
African-American or Hispanic/Latino ancestry
Diabetes
History of eye injury
Based on the results of the initial screening, an ophthalmologist will prescribe the necessary intervals for follow-up exams. If the exam is normal, recommendations are as follows:

Age – Frequency of Evaluation
40-54 – Every two to four years
55-64 – Every one to three years
65+ – Every one to two years
Youth Recommendations

Why do children need vision screenings? Good vision is essential for proper physical development and educational progress in growing children. Yet vision problems affect one in 20 preschoolers. They also affect one in four school children. Early detection of treatable eye disease in infancy and childhood can have far-reaching implications for vision and, in some cases, for general health.

Pediatricians or other primary care providers generally perform vision and ocular health screening examinations in children.

Before Age 3

Since it is possible for your child to have a serious vision problem without being aware of it, have his or her eyes screened during regular pediatric appointments. Vision testing is recommended for all children starting around 3 years of age.

If there is a family history of vision problems or if your child appears to have any of the following conditions, speak to your eye M.D. promptly about when and how often your child’s eyes should be examined:

• Strabismus (crossed or misaligned eyes)
• Ptosis (drooping of the upper eyelid)
• A white reflection in the pupil (often noticed on photographs)
Age 3 to 19

To ensure your child or teenager’s eyes remain healthy, he or she should have his or her eyes screened every one to two years during regular pediatric or family physician check-up appointments.

Healthy Eyes, Healthy You

They’re not just windows to our soul — our eyes are windows to our health. Pay attention to your eyes with regular eye exams and increase your chances of seeing your golden years.

Six Ways to Preserve Your Vision

Get regular eye exams
Early detection and treatment are your best protection.
Take antioxidant vitamins and zinc
A dietary supplement of vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene, along with zinc, can lower the risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) progressing to advanced stages by about 25 to 30 percent. There are special over-the-counter supplements just for AMD.
Protect eyes from UV light
UV light can cause cataracts and can be a factor in the development of macular degeneration. Wear protective lenses outdoors and in tanning beds.
Control diabetes
Control of blood sugar decreases the chance of developing diabetic retinopathy, a serious complication of diabetes in the eyes that can cause vision loss.
Don’t smoke
Smoking is linked to AMD, cataracts and increased risk of vision loss in the presence of other eye disease.
Wear eye protection
90 percent of eye injuries could be prevented with a little common sense when it comes to using chemicals, tools, power tools, projectiles, etc. Polycarbonate lenses are best.
Source: American Academy of Ophthalmology