Don’t Wait and See

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How to slow, detect and adapt to low vision and blindness

“EVERY SINGLE DAY a person comes into my office and says, ‘I’m going blind,’” says optometrist Dr. Erika Morrow of ForSight Eye Care. She finds this amusing because the patient is almost always exaggerating, much like my own mother does whenever she attempts to thread a needle without glasses.

“If glasses help you see perfect, then you do not have what is considered low vision,” Morrow explains. “But if you are wearing your best corrective eyewear and you still can’t see perfect, then that would be considered a vision deficit.” 

My mom has ideal vision with glasses and is not, in fact, going blind, but an alarming number of people experience low vision and blindness. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 4.2 million Americans 40 years and older have uncorrectable vision impairment, referred to as low vision. Of that number, more than 1 million are considered blind. The leading causes of low vision and blindness are primarily age-related eye diseases, such as age-related macular degeneration, cataract, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy, the latter of which the CDC reports is the leading cause of blindness in adults — yet is preventable 90 percent of the time. 

But eye disease also affects children. Nearly 3 percent of children younger than 18 have low vision or blindness, most often caused by amblyopia, commonly called “lazy eye,” and strabismus, which is an imbalance in the position of the eyes.

This adds up to a large population of people who not only struggle to see, but also find everyday activities such as driving, cleaning or cooking either challenging or altogether impossible.


AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION

Thankfully, there are preemptive actions you can take when it comes to vision impairment, and it starts with what you put in your body. “Eating green, leafy vegetables is really important,” says Morrow. They provide lutein and zeaxanthin — nutrients that can protect your eyes from inflammation.  She recommends getting Omega-3 fatty acids from fish and flaxseed, and zinc in the form of red meat, beans, seafood, nuts, eggs and other dairy. And what about carrots being good for your eyes? It’s true: Morrow explains that vitamins A, C and E are essential to eye health. She recommends orange-colored fruits, sweet potatoes and, yes, carrots for a hit of vitamin A; citrus fruits, red bell peppers, tomatoes and strawberries for vitamin C; and avocados, almonds and sunflower seeds for a dose of vitamin E.


And what about carrots being good for your eyes? It’s true: Morrow explains that vitamins A, C and E are essential to eye health.


 As far as what to avoid, steer clear of high-fat and smoking. “Diets high in fat are bad for the body because they create inflammation, and we know that can make macular degeneration worse, and smoking increases your risk of macular degeneration by seven times,” Morrow says. You’ll also want limit prolonged sun exposure (wear sunglasses with UV protection!) and be sure to wear contact lenses correctly. “I have patients who have low vision and blindness because wearing their contact lenses improperly resulted in scarring or infection.”

Morrow also stresses the importance of regular eye exams, particularly for patients with glaucoma. “I recently had a patient in his mid-50s who never had an eye exam before because he didn’t see the importance,” Morrow says. “Now, he is literally going blind from glaucoma, which is completely treatable if you’re getting regular checkups.” Not all exams are equal, either. “If a retailer is advertising a ‘free eye exam,’ you’re only getting a free vision check for a prescription,” Morrow explains. “A comprehensive eye exam is one where the eye pressure is checked and nerves are examined.” This can be completed by either an optometrist or ophthalmologist.



GET RESOURCEFUL

Low vision and blindness cannot be corrected, but they can be treated or offset with vision aids and adaptations. Cecilia Emery has spent more than 40 years helping people with low vision and blindness and is an occupational therapist at the nonprofit Savannah Center for Blind and Low Vision (SCBLV). She always begins by asking her clients, “What is the most important thing to you?” — whether that be reading, writing, cooking or working with your hands — and then works to find adaptations for those everyday activities, allowing the client to locate and use the things they need most. “We refer to these as ‘low-tech’ adaptations that could be made in addition to using low-vision aids like a CCTV (closed circuit television) magnifying glass, text-to-speech reader or even an app,” she says.

Emery points out how getting connected with resources like SCBLV is particularly important because clients not only grieve the loss of their sight, but the resulting limitations can also lead to social isolation and depression. She recalls one client who had been very active until vision loss prevented him from driving. “He felt his life was pretty much over,” says Emery. SCBLV loaned him a CCTV, and he was able to write his memoirs. “That gave him a thrill and changed him,” says Emery. “I see that time and time again when I introduce people to things that will open up their world.”

SCBLV also offers vocational rehabilitation for those who want to return to work or go to school to learn a new trade; an orientation and mobility program that teaches people how to use a white cane to maneuver in the community; technology assistance; and support groups. Additionally, an on-staff social worker is able to link people to other community resources that may be beneficial. 

While we’re all destined to get older, only some of us will experience low vision and blindness. But for those who do, life is far from over given the medical expertise and organizational resources in this community to help them see and function as independently as possible.