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Women's eyes are at higher risk for a number of serious vision problems. These steps can help keep your vision sharp and your eyes healthy.
Cast your eyes on these numbers:
- Two-thirds of blindness and visual impairment occur in women.
- Women make up 65% of macular degeneration cases and 61% of glaucoma cases.
- 61% of the over 26 million people with cataracts are women.
- 66% of blind people are female.
- Some 2.7 million women over the age of 40 are visually impaired.
- Women are twice as likely to struggle with dry-eye syndrome.
Despite all this, one in four women did not have an eye exam in the past 2 years, according to an online survey conducted on behalf of the eye health and safety organization Prevent Blindness.
"As women, we tend to put ourselves—and our health care—on the back burner while we focus on our children and our spouses," says Elizabeth Czirr, O.D., F.A.A.O., an optometrist at America's Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in Kingsport, Tennessee.
"I see women patients all the time who put off their vision care because they're too busy with their families," she continues. "But you can't take care of your family—or enjoy life yourself—if you don't take care of your eyes."
Regular eye exams are key, but here are seven more crucial steps you can take to protect your vision.
1. Keep your eyes moist.
"Dry eye sufferers are much more likely to be women," says Dr. Czirr—and there are lots of reasons.
"Hormone changes after menopause, as well as birth control pills, impact your tear production and contribute to the problem," she says. "Makeup and face lotion also may be irritating to the eyes."
The solution? Artificial tears, which are available over the counter. "I use a drop every morning when I get up," she says.
One daily drop is often enough of a remedy for most people. But if you find yourself reaching for the tears frequently, it's time to call your eye doctor to rule out other issues and get a more tailored treatment plan.
Another dry eye culprit is screen time. "Hours on our cell phones and other devices can keep us from blinking as much as we need to—and blinking is important because it redistributes tears and keeps our eyes from drying out."
We know it's not always practical to step away from your computer at work, but one trick that's doable for most is the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes (give or take!), look away from your screen at something 20 feet away, for 20 seconds.
That's just enough time, she says, for your eyes to say to themselves, Blink!
2. Practice better makeup hygiene.
Careless beauty habits can put your eyes at risk for an infection. A better routine:
Stay away from beauty trends like lash extensions. These extensions can add so much weight to your eyelid that they can keep you from blinking properly, which, as you learned above, is pretty important for good eye health.
The glues that are used to attach the lashes can be irritants (many contain formaldehyde). And, because they're an investment that can't get wet, many women cut corners with their nightly cleansing (see #3 below). Dirty lids equal an opening for an eyelid infection (known as blepharitis) that's caused by clogged oil glands along the lash line.
"Plus, you've got someone who's not a doctor poking around your eyeballs during the application," says Dr. Czirr. "There's lots of potential for infections."
Choose your makeup carefully. Here's an industry secret: all a cosmetic company needs to place a "hypoallergenic" or "dermatologist approved" label on their product is a go-ahead from one dermatologist, says Dr. Czirr. No clinical testing required.
Your best bet? Stick with brands you know well. Before splurging on a new shadow palette or the latest mascara, talk with your eye doctor or dermatologist about what ingredients to look for and which brands they feel are safest.
Change your cosmetics frequently. Bacteria can accumulate in bottles and on mascara wands. "Toss out your makeup every three months or so," she says.
Keep your tools clean. Be sure to wash your brushes, sponges, and other makeup applicators weekly.
3. Treat your skin well.
Put as much effort into removing your makeup as you do applying it.
"Your lashes and lids need to breathe," explains Dr. Czirr. "If you're not getting all the makeup off, it can sit there overnight and cause irritation."
The skin in your eye area is really thin and delicate, so be sure to use a gentle cleanser or a designated lid scrub (they're often sold near the contact lens solutions).
"You don't have to spend a fortune—the most important thing is to establish good habits," she says.
She also recommends adding warm compresses to your nightly routine: after washing your face, put a warm, wet cloth over your eyes for a few minutes to heat up the oils in your eyelids. Then, with the cloth still on, gently massage your eyes—that releases the oils and moisturizes your eyes.
"It's a great extra step that will keep your eye area extra clean and your eyes feeling soothed and refreshed," she says.
4. Check your family health history.
The eye-health experts at the Cleveland Clinic note that eye problems can travel in families. Glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration (AMD) are two of the biggies that have a genetic component in a large number of cases.
While you can't change your genes, of course, Dr. Czirr says just knowing what some of your other family members have experienced can help you and your eye doctor know what to keep on the radar from one checkup to the next.
"We can also talk about good prevention steps," she says.
Glaucoma, a disease that causes progressive damage to the optic nerve, is sly. It often has no warning signs until it's reached an advanced stage. AMD is the leading cause of vision loss among those over the age of 50. People with AMD often say their view is like looking through a raindrop.
5. Eat a vision-healthy diet.
You may have heard that what's good for your heart is also good for your eyes.
Sounds cliché, but it's true, because the common denominator among many heart and eye problems is chronic low-grade inflammation. That's when your body's immune system gets stuck in overdrive, slowly wearing down the functioning of your eyes, heart, and other organs.
The foods you eat (and don't eat) are among the simplest ways to go about keeping inflammation in check. At the top of the "eat more of" list are antioxidant-rich foods like citrus fruit, carrots, tomatoes, and dark-green vegetables like spinach, broccoli, and kale.
A recent meta-analysis of studies found that those foods contain a mix of nutrients (most notably lutein and zeaxanthin) that helps delay the onset of age-related cataracts (when the eye's lens starts to fog up). The 2019 report was published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Another study revealed that leafy greens can also cut your risk of glaucoma by as much as 30%.
So what's at the top of the "eat less of" list? Pretty much any food that would classify as a guilty pleasure. Prepackaged treats (sweet or salty) are among the main contributors to chronic inflammation.
6. Make healthier habits a priority.
Sitting and smoking aren't good for any part of your body—including your eyes.
Long-term smoking doubles the risk of age-related macular degeneration, and heavy smoking—20 cigarettes or more a day—can damage your retina and cause overall color vision loss, according to a joint study conducted by researchers at Rutgers University and a team in Brazil.
Good news: quitting at any age comes with positive health benefits. So it's never too late to stop. Visit smokefree.gov to make a plan.
Instead of lighting up a smoke, try lacing up your sneakers. Regular exercise is associated with lower risk of glaucoma and AMD. And all you need is about 30 minutes a day to check this off your to-do list.
"Physical activity is good for the heart and mind and the eyes, too," says Dr. Czirr.
7. Wear sunglasses every day.
Even when it's cloudy, those harmful UV rays poke through and damage your eyes.
"This is especially important for women," Walsh says, "because it can help you avoid AMD."
Get yourself a nice pair of big wraparound sunglasses that protect not just the eyes but the entire area around them. And be sure to read the labels.
"Make sure you choose a pair that blocks out 100% of both UVA and UVB rays," she says. If the frame or product label doesn't state 100% protection or UV400, you may just be looking through a dark lens that offers zero sun protection.