Be well: Get regular eye exams to protect vision and catch warning signs early
During an eye exam, eye doctors can detect signs of more than 270 chronic health conditions. Discover what to expect during an exam, along with tips to prevent digital eye strain.
Most people understand the importance of healthy eyes, but only half of them get annual eye exams, according to a study conducted by VSP Vision Care and market research agency YouGov.
Just as you would schedule regular dental cleanings and physicals, the American Optometric Association (AOA) recommends that all adults aged 18 to 64 get an eye exam every year.
"Going in for an eye exam is about more than seeing clearly — it should be a priority for your overall health and wellness," Dr. Pamela Riedy, an optometrist in Chesterfield, Missouri, and vice president of patient care at Visionworks.
"In addition to ensuring you can see clearly, an eye exam also provides an incredible window into your overall health."
Through an eye exam, your eye doctor has an unobstructed view of blood vessels and the optic nerve, which is an extension of the brain, Riedy explained.
"Because of that, eye doctors are often the first to detect signs of more than 270 chronic health conditions – everything from early signs of diabetes to high blood pressure and even some cancers," she said.
Beyond chronic conditions, eye doctors can detect glaucoma, cataracts and macular degeneration during exams.
"Those three conditions share a common characteristic: no early warning signs," said Riedy.
"It’s critical to get an annual eye exam, which can help detect them earlier before they progress and impact your sight."
An eye exam uses a variety of tests to assess visual system and eye health.
Perhaps the most familiar part of the exam is the visual acuity test, which is when the doctor will ask you to read letters of descending size on the "Snellen chart" from 20 feet away.
If you need glasses or contacts, the doctor will perform a refraction test to determine the correct prescription lens. This is when you’ll be asked to compare the clarity and effectiveness of multiple lenses ("what’s better, 1 or 2?").
The eye doctor will also conduct a quick pupil test to gauge the health of the eyes and nervous system, according to Healthline.
Next is the "air puff test," officially known as non-contact tonometry (NCT), per Verywell Health.
This test is used to measure the pressure in the eye, which can help detect glaucoma.
Additional tests may include color vision, depth perception, side vision, retina evaluation and eye movement and focusing, Riedy said.
"You don’t need to prepare for the exam ahead of time — choosing the right optometrist for you and scheduling the exam to fit your schedule is all it takes," she said.
Visionworks.com offers an online scheduler where you can enter your zip code and find a provider in your area.
Frequent exposure to blue light that is emitted from electronic devices can often cause digital eye strain, Riedy warned.
"Blue light is a range of light that contains the highest amount of energy in the visible light spectrum," she explained.
To combat the effects of blue light, Riedy suggests following the "20/20 rule."
"Every 20 minutes, remind yourself (and your children) to take your eyes off the screen and look at something that's at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds," she said.
During an eye exam, your doctor may also recommend a blue light-reducing, anti-reflective coating for your lenses.
When working at a computer, Riedy said it’s best to find a comfortable working distance from your screen.
"Children should hold devices as far away from their eyes as is comfortable," she said. "Adults are encouraged to hold devices at arm’s length."
Additionally, you can reduce the amount of blue light exposure by turning down the brightness level of device screens.