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Don't overlook need for regular eye exams
Nearly everyone needs glasses at some point; don't neglect eye health

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Date published: 4/4/2010

BY DONYA CURRIE

Along with death and taxes, another certainty is that you will need eyeglasses at some point in your life. But being able to see clearly is only one reason to get a regular eye exam.

Eye doctors can detect health problems like high blood pressure and diabetes before they've done bodily harm. And they also can prevent the damage wrought by such "silent thefts of vision" as glaucoma.

"Many people associate getting their eyes checked only when they break their glasses or they can't see," said Fredericksburg optometrist Dr. David Hettler. "The most important thing we do during an eye exam is a health check."

That health check includes screening for abnormal pressure buildup in the fluid of the eye, which can signal glaucoma--a condition that if caught early is easily treated with eyedrops.

The disease has no symptoms, is more common among blacks than the general population and can strike at any age. Those with a family history of the disease have a 20 percent chance of developing glaucoma.

The sneaky way glaucoma--and a condition known as diabetic retinopathy, one of the country's leading causes of blindness--steal sight make it all the more important for everyone to see an eye doctor regularly, said Hettler and Dr. Alberto Martinez, an ophthalmologist in Bethesda, Md.

Both wish people would let prevention, rather than eye problems, lead them to schedule an appointment.

"More often than not, a patient comes in with a disease," Martinez said about his usual caseload. "Occasionally, I see a disaster."

Such disasters include a patient with irreversible blindness caused by what could have been treated if caught earlier. Both glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy gradually erode a person's peripheral or side vision. By the time a patient notices and is bumping into things because of tunnel vision, "it's too late," Martinez said, to restore the vision loss.

EXAMS FOR CHILDREN

While most people won't have severe eye disease, eye exams still can be life-changing for those with undiagnosed vision problems.

The National Eye Institute estimates 11 million Americans have uncorrected "refractive errors" that occur when the eye doesn't correctly bend light.

Conditions like near-sightedness and astigmatism--which can accompany other eye problems and cause blurry vision because the cornea is not perfectly rounded--can have far-reaching impacts.


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If you can't remember when you last had your eyes examined, it might be time for a checkup. Learn more about eye health and screening guidelines from these Web sites:

geteyesmart.org: Comprehensive information from the American Academy of Ophthalmology, including a "Find an Eye MD" feature and screening recommendations for all ages.

aoa.org: Site of the American Optometric Association--includes a "find an optometrist" feature.

infantsee.org: AOA program to encourage eye exams for babies.

--Donya Currie