For optical health, lifestyle is at the heart of the matter

The middle-aged smoker, pint in one hand, iPhone in the other, peering over his beer gut to check his Twitter feed: he probably doesn’t need to be told that his life-style is putting his heart at risk. But what about his eyesight?

It is not the first thing that springs to mind when considering a healthier life-style but eyesight is just as likely as the heart to benefit from your quitting smoking, moderating drinking, taking exercise and improving diet. In fact, lifestyle factors behind heart disease are often the same as those that raise the risk of eye conditions.

Smoking is linked to cataracts, high blood pressure raises the risk of glaucoma and high cholesterol can clog the veins of the retina, causing blindness. The most common cause of blindness is age-related macular degeneration (AMD), in which damage to the retina causes loss of vision in the centre of the visual field. You are more likely to get it if you smoke, have high blood pressure and/or are overweight.

“Compared with past smokers or people who have never smoked, current smokers are significantly more likely to develop AMD and tend to develop it earlier,” says Dr Susan Blakeney, clinical adviser to The College of Optometrists.

To reduce the risk of AMD, Blakeney recommends quitting smoking, limiting alcohol intake and eating a diet that is high in antioxidants and the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin.

“Eating healthily is always a good idea, and having a diet that is rich in coloured fruit and vegetables, such as kale, broccoli or mangos, may reduce the risk of developing AMD,” she says.

Other lifestyle factors that can affect the eyes include our growing dependence on small-screen devices and gaming consoles. According to Niall O’Kane, an optometrist in Kent, there is no reason to believe that smartphones, tablets and computer screens actually damage eyesight. But they can cause the eyes to become dry, irritable and painful.

“What happens when you stare at a screen is that your blink-rate goes down. So, we are all staring at tiny text on small screens or sitting at computers all day drinking too much tea and coffee, which are diuretics and lead to dehydration. We are not blinking enough and our eyes are drying out.”

Confusingly, one of the common symptoms of dry eye syndrome is watery eyes, caused by the tear glands overcompensating. Dry eyes may clear up on their own after a break from the screen or can be treated with over-the-counter eye drops.

Both Blakeney and O’Kane recommend an eye test with an optometrist at least once every two years. This will not only determine whether you need glasses, but will also pick up the early signs of more serious conditions.

Children should have their eyes tested immediately they show any sign of a problem, such as sitting very close to the TV or holding toys close to their face. Eye checks should become part of their normal regime, like visiting the dentist, even if nothing seems wrong.

“Children are never too young to have their eyes examined,” Blakeney says. “It is essential that any problems are picked up at an early stage, when they are more likely to be treated effectively.”

Do’s and don’ts

Do get your eyes tested every two years.

Don’t ignore any changes to your vision.

Do practise the 20-20-20 rule when using screens (every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break and look 20 feet away).

Don’t wear poor-quality sunglasses — check for the CE mark to ensure that they protect against UV light.

Do wear your glasses and encourage children to wear theirs — 80 per cent of learning is visual.

Don’t smoke.

Do eat a healthy diet, take exercise and drink moderately.