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Excellent vision doesn’t necessarily mean all’s well with your eyes.
When you have 20/20 vision, scheduling regular eye exams isn’t likely to top your to-do list. But delaying your routine visit puts your eyes and your overall health at risk.
That’s because updating eyeglass and contact lens prescriptions is just one small reason to keep up on recommended exams. A comprehensive eye exam can reveal asymptomatic conditions or alert you to symptoms you haven’t yet noticed.
“It’s all about preventative care,” says Elizabeth Walsh Czirr, O.D., an optometrist with Nashville Regional Eyecare inside an America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in Kingsport, Tenn. “It probably happens daily that someone presents with a new diagnosis, whether it’s sight threatening or not, that could have been prevented or treated if we’d caught it earlier.”
In fact, in a study of nearly 2,700 patients reporting no eye-related symptoms (such as blurry vision, headaches, or floaters), more than half were diagnosed with new eye conditions or changes in care for an existing problem.
The risk was higher among older patients and those with longer intervals between visits, according to researchers at the University of Waterloo School of Optometry and Vision Science.
“People confuse eye health with eye prescription,” says Dr. Czirr. “Just because you can see 20/20 doesn’t always mean your eyes are healthy.”
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According to the American Optometric Association, adults who are happy with their vision and who are at a low-risk for eye diseases or vision problems should visit the eye doctor at least every two years. You should get an annual eye exam if you have a family history of eye disease, have diabetes (or other health condition that can impact the eyes), or take a medication with known ocular side effects. And after age 60, be sure to go every year, says Dr. Czirr.
Here’s what you’re missing out on when you skip a recommended regular eye checkup.
1. A Snapshot of Your Overall Health
A comprehensive eye exam can spot diseases like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and even autoimmune diseases and some cancers.
That’s because digital imaging of the retina and pupil dilation give eye doctors a clear view inside the eye. The small blood vessels and delicate structures located there are often the first affected by systemic disease.
“When I was shadowing my optometrist,” recalls Jeff Foster, O.D., an optometrist at America’s Best in San Antonio, “he said, ‘Sometimes I tell people they have diabetes before their doctor does.’ I didn’t say this out loud at the time, but I was like, ‘yeah, right.’ Well, I have done that multiple times now—and it surprises me every time.”
Dr. Czirr once helped spot a brain tumor in one of her patients, referring her to a specialist after noticing the patient’s optic nerve was damaged. Luckily, this type of tumor generally responds to radiation, but if the woman hadn’t come in for an exam, the outcome could have been dire.
Another patient was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that was causing inflammation in his eyes. And one day, eye doctors may be able to help predict Alzheimer’s risk. Promising research shows that elevated levels of the Alzheimer’s proteins amyloid or tau appear to significantly thin the center of the retina, something that a high-tech eye-imaging device that’s used to diagnose retinal diseases can spot.
Eye doctors are trained to look for abnormalities and know the proper referrals to make when they spot them, says Dr. Czirr. “At the end of the day,” she adds, “nothing beats a comprehensive eye exam with your eye doctor.”
2. The Chance to Spot Sneaky Eye Conditions
Many early-stage eye diseases are asymptomatic and can only be detected with a comprehensive exam. That includes some of the most common causes of blindness in the United States, like glaucoma, macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and cataracts.
In one Canadian study reported in the Journal of Optometry, about one in four patients with no symptoms, or refractive symptoms only, were diagnosed with eye conditions as the result of a comprehensive eye exam. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about half of Americans with glaucoma are not aware they have the disease.
Dr. Czirr knows of one young patient in her late 20s who was diagnosed with eye melanoma, a type of eye cancer. “It had probably been there for a couple years,” Dr. Czirr says. If she had come in a few years earlier, her eye doctor could have spotted it sooner.
Once symptoms of any eye disease start, it may be too late to reverse the damage. Early detection is key to treatment and preventing further damage.
3. Vision-Saving Knowledge
Your eye doctor can offer advice for good visual hygiene and alert you to vision changes you might expect as you age.
“Education is such a big part of our job,” says Dr. Czirr, who often tells patients what they can do to lower their risk of eye problems. For example, she tells her diabetic patients that keeping A1C levels under 7% can help stave off vision loss due to diabetic retinopathy.
“People talk about taking a holistic approach to health and wellness,” says Dr. Czirr. “Eye care should be included in that.”
4. Help with Managing Allergies
Allergies are on the rise thanks to an upswing in pollen counts, and they can trigger itching, burning, and redness in your eyes. The best way to manage these symptoms is with an eye doctor’s help.
Eye doctors have a broad clinical knowledge of allergy treatments, including over-the-counter and prescription eye drops and ointments. Yours may be able to help you find the best option for you.
5. Relief for Dry Eyes
These days we’re always staring at screens: computers, phones, e-readers, TVs. When we do that, we tend to blink less, so we’re not replenishing the lubricating tear film that keeps our eyes healthy and moist.
“More people have dry eye than know they have it,” Dr. Czirr says. “We’re experts on that, so we know how to spot it and exactly how to manage it.”
If your eyes feel gritty, itchy, or irritated most of the time—or if you frequently feel the impulse to rub them—you likely have dry eye syndrome. So why suffer? Depending on what’s causing the problem, your eye doctor may be able to prescribe special artificial tears or recommend strategies like hot compresses.
6. Sharper Vision
Refractive errors (nearsighted or farsighted) are very common, affecting nearly half of all Americans, according to the National Eye Institute (NEI). Nearsightedness (myopia), in particular, is increasingly more common—from 1972 to 2000, the number of nearsighted people in the U.S. jumped from 25% of the population to 40%, according to a NEI study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Ophthalmology.
But here’s the kicker: many people don’t realize they could be seeing things much clearer. “It happens a lot more than people realize,” Dr. Czirr says. “You’re so used to how you see, because that’s how you see. You don’t know it’s blurry.”
Uncorrected vision problems can have serious implications. Impaired vision due to age-related eye conditions has been linked to shorter life span and, according to an Australian study published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology, increased risk of falls and fractures among older adults.
What’s more, experts at the American Optometric Association note vision problems can put children at risk for learning deficits and even lead to cross eye or lazy eye.
Dr. Czirr often sees patients whose vision is so bad it does not meet legal requirements to drive—and they have no idea. “They come in all the time and say they see great,” she says.
In fact, they don’t know what they’re missing.