Okay Ladies, complete this sentence: When it comes to men versus women, women are more ______________ ? More what?
If I was to chide my husband, I’d quote singer Bonnie Raitt and say “Women are smarter” but when it comes to blindness, the unfortunate fact is that women are more likely to go blind than men. Women represent 66% of the blind and visually impaired population in the US, according to Prevent Blindness America. And we’re NOT always smarter, because we don’t recognize our increased risk. Prevent Blindness finds that only 9% of women surveyed believe women have a higher risk for vision loss than our male counterparts. Further, we neglect routine, preventative medical care which could cure, prevent or provide sight saving treatment.
The reasons why women suffer more vision loss fall into three general categories: certain medical conditions, which are more common for women, can lead to eye disease; socio-economic factors serve to limit access to adequate healthcare, good nutrition and fitness; and finally, women live longer than men.
Auto-immune diseases such as arthritis, lupus and multiple sclerosis carry the potential to cause ocular inflammation and subsequent vision loss. Women also have hormonal changes during pregnancy and menopause which reduce the healthy oils in the tears and lead to dry eye. Symptoms can range from a mild discomfort to an intense burning, gritty feeling. The severe pain associated with dry eye not only impacts quality of life but can lead to corneal scarring and visual impairment.
Women are more likely than men to be un-insured or under-insured, creating barriers to undergo routine medical care. Untreated high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes can lead to eye disease and vision loss. Poverty can factor into this equation as well. Women are 25% more likely than men to live in poverty during adulthood and twice as likely to live in poverty as seniors. Poverty is a central link to increasing rates of obesity and poor nutrition, and when combined with limited access to quality healthcare, the resulting diabetes epidemic comes as no surprise.
Diabetes is by far the most common cause of vision loss in the under 60 adult US population. One in ten women in the US have diabetes and 27% of them are unaware they have the disease. This is particularly disheartening when we consider that proper management of diabetes and regular eye exams usually saves sight.
Reproduction carries a risk to the eyes as well: diabetes during pregnancy, also called gestational diabetes, increases a women’s risk of developing diabetes to 40-60% within 5 years of pregnancy, according to the CDC.
When it comes to longevity and vision, living longer is not necessarily better. Eye diseases such as macular degeneration, cataracts and glaucoma are all associated with increased aging. Of these three conditions, macular degeneration accounts for more vision loss than the other two combined. Over two million Americans have macular degeneration and 65 percent of those are women. Thanks to our increasing life span, the rate of macular degeneration is expected to exceed 5 million by 2050. Although there is medical treatment for certain types of macular degeneration, treatment slows the rate of visual decline. It does not restore vision or cure the disease. Our elderly sisters fare better if they have cataracts or glaucoma: advances in medicine have developed surgery and medical treatments for cataracts and glaucoma, which allow most to maintain good vision with proper management.
What can we do about it?
1) Have a dilated eye exam.
Your eye doctor will use drops to dilate the pupil to provide a thorough examination of the inside of the eyes. Conditions like diabetes, macular degeneration, cataracts and glaucoma all require dilation for an accurate diagnosis. Depending on your test results, your eye doctor will recommend preventative eye exams every 12 to 24 months.
2) There’s help and hope!
With timely diagnosis, many eye diseases can be managed and vision saved. Even when eye disease results in vision loss, proper management can often slow the course of the disease. Finally, there are rehabilitation options to maintain independence.
3) Healthy Body = Healthy Eyes.
Staying active and maintaining good body weight will reduce your risk of diabetes, heart disease and stroke, thus reducing the potential for vision loss from these disorders.
4) Have a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
The American Heart Association recommends nine daily servings of fruits and vegetables for a heart healthy diet. This also has proven benefits for dry eye, macular degeneration and glaucoma. So reach for a banana, not a cookie, when you crave a snack.
5) Don’t smoke!
Smokers have higher rates circulation problems, lung cancer and heart disease. Vascular disease compounds the risk for profound vision loss with macular degeneration and increases the risk for strokes to the eye. As your doctor for help to quit smoking.