Steamboat Springs Most people take their eyesight for granted, not realizing that it may not always be so easy to read, drive or recognize familiar faces.
Vision impairment and blindness are among the most prevalent disabling conditions among children and adults. Thankfully, research and technology are making it easier to detect, treat and, in some cases, prevent eye problems.
For example, researchers have found that brain development affecting vision occurs during a child’s first three years of life. If caught early, some potential problems, such as amblyopia or lazy eye, can be reversed by adjusting brain wiring.
Several local optometrists’ offices provide free eye assessments for children ages 6 to 12 months. Participating offices are Eyecare Specialties, Mountain Eyeworks and Steamboat Vision Clinic.
“We are looking for major issues that may affect vision development,” said Ron Danner, an optometrist at Eyecare Specialties.
Researchers also have developed a tool to gauge a person’s risk of developing macular degeneration, one of several eye conditions that are more common among older adults and can lead to blindness. Dietary changes and supplements may help improve or prevent this condition.
Corneal topography, retinal imaging and tear film analyses are among other high-tech tools ophthalmologists and optometrists are using to identify eye problems.
“All this research is providing us a wealth of knowledge to care for patients better,” Danner said.
Some eye conditions produce no warning signs. A comprehensive eye exam is the only way to detect diseases such as glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy in their early stages.
Following the infant assessment, a child should have an eye exam at age 3 and then again at age 5 before entering kindergarten, according to recommendations from the American Optometric Association.
Ideally, children and adults should have annual eye exams. This is especially important for people with diabetes and adults 55 and older.
There are many things we can do to safeguard our vision health:
■ Quit smoking or don’t start. Research links smoking to macular degeneration, cataract and optic nerve damage.
■ Wear sunglasses. This is especially important at our high altitude. Choose sunglasses that block out 99 to 100 percent of UV-A and UV-B radiation.
■ Eat a diet rich in vegetables and fruits, including dark leafy greens such as spinach and kale. Omega-3 fatty acids also have been shown to benefit eye health.
■ Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight increases your risk of developing diabetes and related eye problems.
■ Wear protective eyewear when playing sports or in the workplace, especially if you are working with materials that could cause eye injury.
■ Know your family eye health history. Many eye diseases and conditions are hereditary.
■ Always wash hands thoroughly before touching your eyes and don’t get lazy about contact lens routines. Follow manufacturer recommendations for cleaning and disposal/replacement.
■ Prolonged computer use can cause eye strain, blurred vision and dry eye. Take breaks, adjust screen settings and reduce glare and reflections.
Programs are available to help low-income individuals pay for costs related to vision health. Your vision specialist can connect you to local resources. For a list of national and government programs, visit the National Eye Institute at www.nei.nih.gov and type “financial aid” in the search box.
The Independent Life Center provides advocacy, support and resource referrals to individuals with disabilities. Programs include information and support groups for individuals coping with vision loss. Meetings are held monthly in Steamboat, Hayden and Oak Creek. For more information, call 970-826-0833.
This article includes information from the American Optometric Association, www.aoa.org, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov, and Prevent Blindness America, www.preventblindness.org.
Tamera Manzanares is a community outreach specialist for the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association.