We all know men are from Mars and women Venus. But you may be surprised to learn there are gender differences when it comes to eye health and vision loss. As a nurse and a woman with a visual impairment, I was surprised to learn there are more women than men who are blind or who have vision impairment. I have a degenerative eye disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa and have been legally blind since 1994. Though this condition is genetic and untreatable, there are many steps I take to preserve and protect my remaining vision. And I want to urge other women to take good care of their eyes so they will last a lifetime.
The Women’s Eye Health Task Force reports that nearly two-thirds of all visually impaired and blind people in the world are women. More women than men suffer from eye diseases such as cataracts and macular degeneration. Research has shown there are gender specific symptoms, conditions and risks associated with vision loss.
Prevent Blindness America or PBA, reports similar figures for the U.S.; 66 percent of people who are blind or visually impaired are women. Women have more risk factors and thus, higher rates of vision loss than men. To make matters worse, a recent survey done by PBA revealed that only 9 percent of women realize these troubling facts. Many blinding eye diseases can be treated to prevent blindness and almost all eye injuries can be prevented. Therefore, women need to know what their risks are and learn ways to preserve their vision. PBA launched a new program called See Jane See: Women’s Healthy Eyes Now to educate women on their unique eye health needs.
Women are more likely to lose their vision for several reasons.
- They live longer than men. Many eye diseases are age-related. As women live longer than men, they are more likely to be affected by conditions such as cataracts, macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy. The rates of these diseases are increasing as the population ages, especially among women.
- Some eye diseases are intrinsically more prevalent among women. For instance, dry eye syndrome which is believed to be linked to hormones is two to three times more common in women than men. Hormonal changes across the life span of a woman, from pregnancy to post-menopause, can influence vision changes. Women also have higher rates of autoimmune diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. These conditions often have serious effects on the eyes, causing vision loss.
- Social and economic factors can limit the frequency, quality and availability of health care for women. Since blindness and vision impairment can be prevented through early detection and treatment in some eye conditions, access to proper eye health care is believed to influence the greater rates of vision loss among women.
- There are behavioral and environmental factors that can increase the risk of eye problems, though they are not specific to women. Among them are poor nutrition and obesity which can cause diabetes and subsequent diabetic retinopathy,a leading cause of vision loss. Smoking is also a proven risk factor for eye diseases, including cataracts and macular degeneration.
Women can help themselves and their families to lower the risks of vision loss by educating themselves on eye health and following these guidelines:
- Get a comprehensive, dilated eye exam at age 40 and continue these exams every two years. If you have a family history of an eye condition or have been diagnosed with an eye disease, follow the recommended schedule of your eye doctor. If you experience any vision changes, eye pain, signs of infection, or eye injuries, see an eye doctor right away.
- Quit smoking! Smoking affects many organs in the body and the damage is irreparable. Heart disease, lung cancer, stroke and other vascular problems have long been known as good reasons to quit smoking. Now you have another: blindness. Talk to your doctor about ways to “kick the habit.”
- Maintain a healthy body weight. Start a weight loss or management plan to accomplish this goal. A healthy body weight lowers your risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes which can all cause loss of vision. Be sure to include daily activity in your plan as this has many health benefits that can protect your vision. Begin with 30 minutes of walking at least three times a week.
- Eat an eye healthy diet, rich in colorful fruits and vegetables. Foods containing carotenoids and anti-oxidants such as green leafy vegetables, and fruits high in vitamin C, like oranges, strawberries and melons, may protect eye health. Also include foods rich in omega 3s such as nuts, salmon and egg yolks in your diet. There are supplements available to maintain eye health which contain these micro-nutrients, but it is best to eat fresh, whole foods in a variety of colors to get the best nutrition from your diet.
- Protect your eyes from harmful sun rays. Invest in good quality sunglasses that have full UV-a and UV-b protection. In beach and snow conditions, darker tints are needed to filter out the harmful rays. Wear ball caps or hats with a wide brim for additional protection from scattered rays that reflect off of surfaces. Avoid prolonged periods in the sun without eye protection.
- Use cosmetics and contact lenses safely. Wash hands and face thoroughly before applying contacts and cosmetics. Keep contact cases, make-up brushes and applicators clean. Throw away eye shadows, eye liners, and mascaras after three months. They expire and can become a breeding ground for bacteria. Do not share makeup. Follow the recommended wearing and cleansing schedules for your type of contacts.
- Learn proper eye safety and first aid for home, work, and recreational environments. Wear protective eye gear such as goggles when using chemicals, tools, and machinery. It is important to protect the eyes from burns, cuts, and foreign objects that can damage the corneas and other structures of the eye.
Women live very busy lives juggling the demands of jobs, children, their households, and aging parents. We often play the caregiver role, but sometimes neglect our own self-care. You may take your child for eye screenings or an aging parent to the eye doctor, but when did you last have an eye exam yourself? The power to prevent vision loss is in your hands. Awareness and knowledge are the tools you need. Your sight is precious-save it! Treat yourself to an eye exam today.