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Eye On Eye Health

A revealing new study shows that, while most Americans understand the importance of our eyes, we're not as informed when it comes to taking care of them.

On The Early Show's Saturday Edition, medical contributor Dr. Mallika Marshall said we need to be more conscientious about their health.

The new study shows that 85 percent of Americans consider sight their most important sense. Yet, fewer than half have their eyes examined more than every other year.

Why is that?

"According to this study," Marshall says, "most Americans agree that having our eyes checked is a simple procedure, simpler than going to the dentist, or filing taxes. But a fair percentage said they didn't do it because they were afraid to confirm their eyesight was getting worse. More than half, though, said they didn't realize that, in most cases, blindness can be prevented."

"Annual eye exams help your doctor correct any vision problems you might have as soon as they come up," Marshall continues. "This study showed that 20 percent of us are at risk for vision loss. Fourteen percent are visually impaired, and 11 percent have vision problems that could be corrected, but they aren't being treated.

"You may not know, however, that your eyes are the windows to more than your soul. Often, early signs of serious medical problems can show up in your eye exams, problems like hypertension, heart disease and diabetes."

Marshall points out that the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends a "baseline" screening (exam) at age 40, when changes in vision start to occur, and when early signs of some diseases may show up. After that, follow your doctor's orders.

Of course, if you show any signs of vision problems, see an ophthalmologist right away.

Are there some conditions you can treat yourself, such as eyes not tearing enough or stinging when they do tear?

"If your eyes burn or sting, or are dry, there are over-the-counter wetting solutions you can try. However, (that depends on) the severity of the problem, and how long it lasts. If you find drops aren't enough, you should make an appointment with your eye doctor as soon as you can. It could be "dry eye syndrome," where you don't produce enough tears, or your tears evaporate too quickly. It usually occurs as we get older, during menopause, or from certain medications or certain illnesses. Only your doctor can tell you why it's happening, and how to cure it."

It's also very important to have kids' eyes checked regularly, Marshall says: "More than 12 million school-age children in the U.S. have some form of vision problems. Ten million more have vision problems that have gone undetected. And 25 percent have vision problems that can affect their ability to learn. Nearly 80 percent of what our children learn before they're 12 comes from what they see. Checking to make sure their eyes are healthy is easy and very, very important.

"The American Optometric Association recommends an eye exam shortly after the child is born, followed by another at six months old, and another just before he or she starts school. The American Academy of Ophthalmology suggests a full screening at three- to three-and-a-half years old. Remember, your child can be screened at his or her pediatrician's office, and often the school nurse can give them a basic eye exam. Also, keep in mind, if your child has develops a problem learning to read, you should arrange to have his or her eyes checked right away."

Marshall also reminds us that, apart from getting regular eye exams, there are other ways you can protect your eyes: Wear sunglasses, because, "The same UV rays that can harm your skin can also hurt your eyes. Always wear sunglasses, and make sure they say they have UV protection."

Smoking can contribute to the development of cataracts, and it's been shown to increase the risk of macular degeneration, which is a severe deterioration of the retina, and can cause blindness in people over 60.

"While you're at it," Marshall says, "cutting down on your alcohol intake wouldn't hurt, since it dehydrates the eyes."

Marshall then touches on whether carrots really are good for our eyes, as we're all taught growing up.

"Try to eat foods that contain Lutein and Omega 3 fish oils," Marshall says. "Lutein is a "carotenoid" found in green, leafy vegetables and in egg yolks. It's an antioxidant that protects not only our eyes by fighting macular degeneration, but our skin. And omega 3 fish oils, which we've been hearing so much about lately, are eyes-friendly. It's a fatty acid that can protect the retina, and help us produce eye fluids. Fatty acids also help protect against macular degeneration and retinitis."