About 38 million Americans have eye diseases such as glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, age-related macular degeneration and cataracts – common causes of vision loss, low vision and blindness. As Baby Boomers age, the numbers are expected to double in the near future.
Individuals with low or no vision sometimes feel they have reached the end of the road with their vision problem because their sight cannot be restored, but it is essential that they continue to see an eye doctor regularly and that they are informed advocates for their own eye health.
On July 23, ophthalmologist Michael Summerfield spoke at “Eye Care is for Everyone,” a free public event at the Seabury Resources for Aging Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Washington, D.C. He encouraged attendees, many of whom live with impaired or no vision, to continue to visit an ophthalmologist regularly for six important reasons:
1) All vision is worth saving
Individuals living with limited vision learn to make use of what sight they have, and even a very small amount of sight is worth a lot. Even if it isn’t possible to improve visual acuity or regain sight, if that small amount of vision can be maintained, it can still be useful vision. Continual care is essential to maintaining small amounts of vision that can make a tremendous difference in the life of the patient.
2) Other diseases can be picked up through eye exams
Health conditions that have nothing to do with vision can often be detected through eye exams with an ophthalmologist. Small changes in the blood vessels in the eyes can help doctors detect even subtle forms of hypertension; inflammation in the eye can be evidence of systemic inflammation conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and sarcoidosis; and evidence of diabetic retinopathy can be an early indicator that a patient has diabetes.
3) Continual eye care can be vital for maintaining comfort
Even if a doctor can’t bring back vision, there are still things he or she can do to keep the eyes comfortable. When an eye doesn’t see anymore, it can experience a chronic, aching pain that the patient might assume is unavoidable. Other times, the ocular surface of the eye may become dry, scratchy and irritated. Pain and discomfort can be alleviated by ophthalmologists with the right treatment.
4) Eye doctors can help with patients’ cosmetic goals
It’s common for eye diseases and conditions that impair vision to affect the appearance of the eyes, and it’s not superficial or vain for a patient to want to address this. Patients shouldn’t be afraid to ask their eye doctor about their personal cosmetic goals with their eyes, because often there is something doctors can do to help.
5) New research and therapies are constantly being conducted
The amount of new information that comes out about eye diseases on a regular basis is growing exponentially. New technologies, assistive devices and therapies are continually being created and tested. A patient’s eye doctor might know something now that didn’t exist a year ago that can improve the patient’s life.
6) Patients can teach their doctors
Patients with vision loss have unique insight into the personal experience of living with low or no vision. In most cases, eye doctors haven’t experienced these conditions themselves. When patients share this information with their ophthalmologists, it creates a richer and more complete understanding of the experience of the condition that doctors may be able to use to help other patients.
Michael Summerfield, M.D., is the director of the MedStar Georgetown University / MedStar Washington Hospital Center Ophthalmology Residency Program.
“Eye Care is for Everyone” was co-sponsored by Seabury Resources for Aging, the Prevention of Blindness Society of Metropolitan Washington (POB), the DC Office on Aging and MedStar Health.