The abundant sunshine experienced in the desert warrants taking special precautions
PHOTOGRAPH BY GETTY IMAGES
Eye care specialists will tell you that cataracts, macular degeneration, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy are among the most common eye diseases they treat. Many people associate these disorders with advanced age. While it’s true they are more prevalent in later years, there are many things the average person can do during their lifetime to mitigate and perhaps even prevent these conditions from ever happening.
The abundant sunshine experienced in the desert warrants taking special precautions. “The damaging rays of the sun have been shown to accelerate cataraceye caret formation,” says Keith G. Tokuhara, an ophthalmologist in private practice in Rancho Mirage who specializes in complex cataract surgery. “Whenever we go outside, we should be wearing a good pair of sunglasses or at least a hat.” Poor diet and exercise habits can also contribute to cataract formation, as can regular smoking and drinking alcohol, as well as health issues such as diabetes and high stress.
“In general, the habits that are good for your general health are good for your eyes,” says ophthalmologist Sanjeev Grewal, a partner in Acuity Eye Group in Palm Desert. An anti-inflammatory diet that concentrates more on fruits and vegetables — hello beta-carotene-rich carrots! — and less on animal fats is recommended. Smoking — always a no-no — serves as a risk factor for macular degeneration in addition to speeding up cataract formation.
The desert climate can also exacerbate cases of dry eye, which covers a spectrum of disease. “There is very mild dry eye [that] results in some minor irritative symptoms or perhaps even no symptoms at all,” Grewal says. “Then there is severe dry eye, which can actually cause scarring or breakdown of the surface of your eye, resulting in infections and the inability to wear contact lenses among other things. It’s less common but can cause severe discomfort.”
Grewal recommends using preservative-free, over-the-counter lubricating eyedrops for symptoms such as gritty, sandy, or red eyes with intermittently blurred vision. “Think of drops as lotion for your eyes,” he says. “We get a lot of wind through here and eyedrops serve to wash out any irritants or allergens in the air. They can be very helpful in a variety of ways.”
A regular eye examination is another essential element of good eye health. “Even if you’re not having any complaints, you should have a check-up every year or, at the very least, every two years,” says Bart P. Ketover, an ophthalmologist and cataract specialist at the Milauskas Eye Institute in Palm Desert. He explains that cataracts are basically not harmful and if they go undetected early on, no long-term damage is done. However, glaucoma and macular degeneration are a different story.
“Glaucoma, which is usually silent and caused by an elevation of your internal eye fluid pressure, can damage your optic nerve permanently,” Ketover says. “And early macular degeneration can be picked up by the ophthalmologist and treated early before it causes permanent damage.” A family history of these conditions certainly calls for close monitoring.
The specter of diabetes always looms large in eye-related matters. “All of these eye problems are much more common and occur earlier in people who are diabetic,” Ketover says. “That includes adult-onset diabetes tied to obesity and early onset diabetes Type 1.” Certain medications can also take a toll. “Steroids, for example, can affect your eye pressure and cause cataracts.”
Successful eye care essentially means being pro-active. “There’s a saying in Hawaii — E hele me ka pu’olo,” says Tokuhara, who went to medical school on the island. “It means make every person, place or condition better than you left it always. So, when we interact with people, when we choose foods in our diet, when we make these choices in our daily routine — it’s these small decisions we make all day long that they can have a huge impact in our life and on our future self, five years from now, 10 years down the road. It’s these little choices we make all day long that can play a huge role in our wellness.”