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The eyes have it

Keeping your eyes healthy in your retirement years can help you be independent for longer.

It’s no good being in the dark about failing eyesight, so one of the most important things you can do as you age is to get regular eye tests.

We often think we only need an eye test to get our glasses updated, but optometrists do so much more than check our vision: they review the health of our eyes.

An optometrist can pick up eye diseases like glaucoma and cataracts. The eyes are also the window to other diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes.

And, of course, you should have an eye test if you feel there have been sudden changes to your vision. Good eyesight is a key factor in avoiding falls and injuries as we age.

Healthy eyes

There are a number of things we can do to keep eyes healthy, including simple things like wearing sunglasses. Sunglasses aren’t just a fashion statement; they can protect your eyes from strong sunlight and harmful UV rays, so check that you buy the right lenses.

You mightn’t think you can do an eye workout, but general exercise helps circulation which, in turn, helps keep your eyes healthy.

Get some sleep. As we sleep, our eyes lubricate themselves and heal themselves, clearing out the dirt and dust that may have accumulated during the day.

Eat well, too. It may be a fallacy that carrots are good for your eyes, but a diet with plenty of vegetables can help you keep your eyes in good condition. And keeping a healthy weight helps stave off diabetes, which can cause problems with your vision.

Things to look out for

There are some specific things to watch for as you age. Conditions like age-related macular degeneration (AMD), for example, which is the major cause of vision loss in Australia. This is a common eye disease that can be managed if picked up quickly – another reason for regular eye checks.

Other issues are the general weakness of our eye muscles that starts at about the age of 45, glaucoma and floaters – small specks that appear to float across your vision.

Benign Essential Blepharospasm

Benign essential blepharospasm (BEB) is a rare focal dystonia: a neurological movement disorder involving involuntary and sustained contractions of the muscles around the eyes. The term essential indicates that the cause is unknown, but fatigue, stress or irritants are possible contributing factors. It’s rare and not widely known, and all too often it’s diagnosed erroneously at first.

Nola Pense is a member of Blepharospasm Australia and suffers from the disease, which presents a little like dry eyes.

“Had I known all of this several years ago I might have avoided a long period of stress and exhaustion,” she says. “Unfortunately, I’m one of many people who has struggled to receive an accurate BEB diagnosis and endured long delays before receiving effective treatment.”

BEB may appear as frequent blinking, squinting of both eyes, spasms of eyelid closure, or simply difficulty in keeping the eyes open. It’s estimated that five in 100,000 individuals have BEB, the larger proportion being older women. These figures come from the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD), in the United States.

“It’s not life threatening, but there is no cure,” Pense says. “The best form of help currently available is in the form of botulinum toxin injections, administered on a regular basis by an ophthalmologist or neurologist. Without this treatment, many of us suffering BEB would be unable to open our eyes and be left functionally blind despite having very good eyesight.”

If you suspect you have any of these issues, Pense says you should get your eyes checked.