How Often Should I Check my… Vision?

An optometrist explains how going in for a routine eye check can sometimes save your life.

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Annoying as it is, there are parts of our bodies we should be getting checked out way more often than we do. In this edition, we’re taking a long, loving look into your eyes, alongside our expert advisor Dr. Andrea Thau, optometrist and president of the American Optometric Association.

I can read the smallest row of letters on the eye chart. That means my vision is good, right?

Not necessarily. While eye charts are a good assessment of how clear your eyesight is, there are lots of other reasons to have an annual routine eye exam.

Like what? Giving money to “Big Optometry,” I suppose!

Um…no. When optometrists perform a comprehensive eye exam, they’re checking for things like eye coordination, peripheral vision, overall eye health, whether or not you need to be prescribed glasses or contacts and, of course, a number of eye conditions and diseases.

Wait…you can get diseases in your eye? Which ones?

One of the most common diseases they check for during routine eye exams is glaucoma, which, if left untreated, can lead to vision loss or even blindness. The reason it’s so important to check for glaucoma is because it has essentially no symptoms, meaning you wouldn’t know you had it until you were already losing your vision.

Jeepers! At least it’s not a life or death situation like checking your blood is.

But it is! What most people don’t know about eye exams is that they’re essentially a window into your overall systemic health and neurological health. That’s because the eye is the only part of the body where it’s possible can see your arteries and veins without having to cut you open. Because of this, diseases that affect those arteries and veins—like diabetes—often show up during eye exams. In fact, there were 240,000 new cases of diabetes diagnosed in 2014 as a result of people going in for their routine eye exam.

How does neurological health come into this? Are you saying you can see if something’s wrong with my brain from an eye exam?

Eyes are actually an extension of the brain, which means optometrists can take a look at your optic nerveone of the twelve cranial nerveswhen you go in for an eye exam. Scientists estimate that over half of the brain is used during the visual process, so if there’s something wrong with the brain or the brain’s pathways—like multiple sclerosis, an aneurysms or a brain tumor—it’s likely that it will show up during an eye exam.

“I once had a patient experiencing a small change in her vision, and when I took a closer look, I sent her to get an MRI,” says Thau. “That MRI found a massive aneurism pressing on her optic nerve. Fortunately, they were able to clamp the aneurysm, and now she’s completely healthy—all because she came in for a simple eye exam.”

Consider me scared into making an appointment! How do I maintain good eye health between visits?

It’s a good idea to invest in sunglasses that have ultraviolet protection, since the sun’s rays can damage your cornea, causing macular degeneration and cataracts. Dark lenses that don’t have ultraviolet protection will actually do even more damage, since they cause your pupils to dilate, allowing more radiation in than if you weren’t wearing sunglasses at all. Smoking is also bad for your eyes: Tobacco smoke is linked to an increased risk of macular degeneration and cataracts, and if you’re a contact lense wearer, you’re at risk of corneal ulcers.

The American Optometric Association also recommends that you follow the 20-20-20 rule: For every 20 minutes spent looking at a computer or handheld device, you should take twenty seconds to look at something that’s at least 20 feet away to keep you from developing nearsightedness. Lastly, as with anything health related, it’s a good idea to incorporate plenty of omega-3s and antioxidants into your diet by eating fish and colorful vegetables.

So if I eat enough carrots I’ll have perfect vision forever? Sweet!

That is absolutely not what we said.

What about, like, 1,000 carrots every

Go see your optometrist.

Got it.

Thank you. And no cheating by memorizing that eye chart—they’ll know. They always know.