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Maintaining good vision a key at every age

Many of life's greatest gifts are often taken for granted – including the gift of good vision.

August is National Eye Exam Month and a perfect time to remind everyone clear sight is something you shouldn't take for granted, no matter what your age.

Start early

"It's very important to have your eyes examined on a regular basis, and that should start at a young age," Dr. Harriet Foshee, a Greenville optometrist, said.

It's estimated one in 20 preschoolers and one in four school-age children in the U.S. have a vision problem, which, if uncorrected, can lead to difficulties in school and sports, and could eventually lead to blindness.

"Even though a child passes the eye screenings done at school, it doesn't mean he or she may not have problems with their vision. That's why a comprehensive yearly eye exam is needed, starting at age three or four," Foshee said.

If, the doctor says, parents detect possible problems with their children's vision, such as squinting, an eye turning or not lining up with the other eye, sitting too closely to the TV in order to see the screen clearly or a sudden clumsiness, an exam should be done earlier.

"An eye exam should certainly be done before any child starts preschool – and, of course, children are starting school at earlier and earlier ages these days," she said.

Early eye exams can help catch a number of childhood eye problems, including amblyopia, commonly known as "lazy eye."

"Good vision can make such a difference in how well a child performs at school, so it's critical to keep on top of good eye health," Foshee said.

Keeping older eyes strong

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the older population. While many assume vision loss to be a normal part of aging, such is not the case.

"Everyone is going to experience some vision changes due to normal aging – I'd swear, for a fact, light bulbs aren't nearly as bright as they used to be," Foshee laughed.

She says most people will need some type of corrective lenses to deal with presbyopia ("old sight"), the far-sightedness resulting from mid-life changes in the eye.

However, some vision problems are more serious and are not correctable with medicine, surgery or conventional eyeglasses.

"You definitely need to see your doctor if you have a need for more light along with a gradual, spotty loss of detail vision, or a sudden loss of central vision. These can be warning signs of macular degeneration," Foshee said.

One vision problem that can be corrected with surgery is cataracts, one of the most common and recognizable vision problems seen in older adults, she said.

"You want to see your doctor if your vision seems hazy, you are having problems distinguishing colors, have an increased sensitivity to glare, or see 'halos'. All these are warning signs of cataracts," Foshee said.

"Glaucoma is another big problem we see in the aging population that everyone needs to be routinely checked for," the optometrist said.

Glaucoma warning signs include experiencing difficulty driving at night, a loss of contrast and, in later stages, a loss of peripheral vision.

Many vision problems can be alleviated with medications, surgery and other means if caught early, Foshee said, which means seeing an eye care professional at least once a year.

"Sight loss is so devastating to an older person. After all, when they can no longer do many of the more physical activities they once enjoyed, many elderly people rely on TV and reading to pass the time. If they lose their sight, they lose that enjoyment," Foshee said.

For those who have difficulty reading regular print, Foshee recommends checking out the selection of large-print books available at the local library, along with books-on-tape.

Whether you are young, in mid-life, or enjoying your golden years, maintaining healthy eyes is very important.

According to Foshee, those with certain health care issues, such as diabetes, need to be especially vigilante.

"Diabetes is the number one cause of blindness among adults in this country… any diabetic needs to have his or her eyes checked regularly to ward off such conditions as diabetic retinopathy," Foshee said.

It all comes down to being aware of what's going on right in front of your eyes.

"Anytime you see sudden changes in your vision, or you experience ocular pain, discomfort, unexplained redness in the eye then follow up as soon as you can with an eye exam," Foshee said.

Plenty of options

Nowadays there are a number of avenues patients can pursue when seeking vision correction that weren't available a few decades ago.

"We've seen big advances in contact lenses over the years. They are now healthier and more comfortable for people to wear and they provide much better visual quality for the patient – you can even change the color of your eyes, if you wish," Foshee said.

Lasik surgery has proven a boon for many individuals, she says, particularly those who are near-sighted.

"We are now seeing Lasik being done on some far-sighted patients and, coming on down the pike will be surgery for the over-40 group – those like myself who wear bifocals," Foshee said.

"Just be sure you are properly fitted for your eyeglasses or contacts by a trained eye care professional. You don't want to leave the health of your eyes in the hands of just anyone," the optometrist said.