Eyesight is often regarded as one of the most important of the five senses. Picture: Pexels/ Cottonbro
Eyesight is often regarded as one of the most important of the five senses. Picture: Pexels/ Cottonbro

4 of the most common eye conditions to look out for

By Viwe Ndongeni-Ntlebi Time of article published Nov 9, 2021

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Eyesight is often regarded as one of the most important of the five senses.

Eye health goes hand in hand with general health, but few people keep it at the top of their health priorities.

According to The Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, 49% of men and 34% of women in South Africa are smokers.

Though the detrimental effects of smoking on overall health are well-documented, many South Africans are unaware of the damage smoking does to arguably the most important organs: the eyes.

Quitting smoking is most likely to prevent the following eye diseases, as well as disorders.

Cataracts - a clouding of the eye’s natural lens – are the leading cause of blindness in the world. Studies have shown that smokers have double the chance of forming cataracts, and the more a person smokes, the higher the risk.

The other “silent thief of sight” is glaucoma.

Niki Aifantis-Harito from Spec-Savers says: “Glaucoma is an eye condition that results in damage to the optic nerve, the health of which is vital for good vision. It develops slowly and often without any noticeable symptoms, leaving the condition undetected until it reaches an advanced stage, causing vision loss and eventual blindness.

“It is one of the leading causes of blindness for people over the age of 60 – but the good news is that if it’s detected early, treatment can slow or stop the progression of the condition and minimise further deterioration of vision.”

In South Africa, 75% of people cannot afford proper eye care, leaving some at risk of developing an eye disease with no opportunity to treat it at early onset.

The risk of developing an eye disease increases with age.

We spoke to Leon van Vuuren, chief executive of Optique Optometrist, who discusses four of the most common eye conditions to look out for in adults over 40, and how to treat them.

Dry eye syndrome

Dry eye disease is very common among South Africans, more so among the elderly. It has a wide range of contributing factors as well as severity.

A human's tear film is made up of different layers, namely the aqueous, mucin and lipid layer. If there is any form of dysfunction in these tear layers, it will result in dry eye symptoms such as burning, blurred vision or grittiness.

This affects older people more easily because the structures producing the components of the tear film are more susceptible to a change in normal function. This can be caused by a number of things, such as medications, altered lid anatomy like sagging eyelids, as well as environmental factors such as wind or extreme heat.

Dry eyes can be treated in the initial stages with the use of good artificial tears and gels.

Flashes and floaters

Floaters are very common, and are often attributed to vitreous syneresis. When we age, the jelly-like substance inside our eyes (the vitreous) starts changing and pulling away from the retina. This commonly leads to floaters that appear in our vision. Floaters need to be examined, especially if they increase.

This is because vitreous syneresis can lead to a posterior vitreous detachment, which is a more serious condition. All floaters should be examined by your optometrist or ophthalmologist to ensure their cause.

If you experience flashes of light in your vision, it needs to be treated as an emergency, because it can be a sign of a retinal detachment, which results in permanent vision loss if not treated promptly.

Presbyopia

Presbyopia is a condition where eyes lose their natural ability to focus on near objects. It is caused by the gradual thickening and loss of flexibility of the lens inside the eye. This is very common and the symptoms tend to start in the mid-40s.

Symptoms and signs include holding objects such as a cellphone further away from the eyes than usual, or needing to take off glasses to clearly see near objects, as well as increased eye strain and light sensitivity.

This can be easily sorted out in a number of ways, including glasses and contact lenses. Unfortunately, presbyopia tends to worsen until people reach their mid-60s to 70s.

Cataracts

Cataracts develop when the natural lens inside the eye starts to lose clarity. The process eventually causes the lens to lose much of its transparency.

When the lens is no longer transparent, light cannot reach the back of the eye, and vision is impaired. Some symptoms of cataracts include increased light sensitivity, decreased night vision, seeing double or ghosted images, or seeing halos around lights.

The most common cause of cataracts is advanced age, but it can also be caused by a number of things, such as trauma, certain medications, or long-term increased sun exposure and smoking.

Wearing sunglasses is the easiest way to slow down the progression of cataracts, or having an anti-UV coating in your normal glasses. Cataracts are treated surgically once vision cannot be improved with glasses or contact lenses anymore.

Although the risk of getting these eye conditions depends to some extent on one’s genes, taking care of eye health is as important as physical and mental health.

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