Healthy Aging

healthy aging

Summer Sun Protection For the Eyes

Healthy aging requires taking care of our entire body. During summer, we tend to spend more time outside in the warmth of the sun. Unfortunately, the sun emits a variety of other radiation that is harmful to our skin and eyes.

This month, the focus is on our eyes. Loss of vision as we age is very harmful to our independence. Exposure to the sun’s radiation can result in a number of visual problems. The two most prominent complications are cataracts and short term visual impairment called Photokeratitits (“snow blindness”). Obviously, cataracts cause long term visual impairment and may require surgery to correct.

Additional dangers from ultraviolet (UV) radiation of the sun include macular degeneration that leads to blindness, as well as skin cancer of the eyelid and abnormal growths called pingueculae and pterygia.

When is Risk to UV Exposure Greatest?

A number of factors increase the risk posed by UV exposure, including geographic location: close proximity to the equator increases risk. Time of year also is important because intensity and duration of sunlight is the greatest during summer. Altitude is important because exposure increases with altitude. Time of day is another important factor with the greatest exposure occurring between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Sunlight exposure in a forest has less affect than on a beach or in the water because reflection contributes to unhealthy exposure. Finally, certain medications or medical conditions can increase susceptibility to radiation. Medicines that contribute to greater exposure to radiation include birth control pills, sulfa drugs, tetracyclines, diuretics and some tranquilizers. Check with your physician about your medications and any potential harmful effects they might contribute to sun exposure. Also, it has been shown that people with low Vitamin C are subject to macular degeneration from high energy visible radiation (HEV), which is another reason to take daily vitamins.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the weather bureau alert us to the degree of ultraviolet exposure daily in the newspaper and on websites. The table below is a guide to preventive strategies.

UV Protection Recommendations

UV Index RiskLevel Recommendations
2 or less/Low1. Wear sunglasses.
2. If you burn easily, use sunscreen with an SPF* of 15+.
3 - 5/Moderate1. Wear sunglasses.
2. Cover up and use sunscreen.
3. Stay in the shade near midday, when the sun is strongest.
6 - 7/High1. Wear a hat and sunglasses.
2. Cover up and use sunscreen.
3. Reduce time in the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
8 - 10/Very High1. Wear a hat and sunglasses.
2. Cover up and use sunscreen.
3. Minimize sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
11+/Extreme1. Wear a hat and sunglasses.
2. Apply sunscreen (SPF 15+) liberally, every two hours.
3. Try to avoid sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

*SPF = sun protection factor
Information based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards.
Table from accessed May 15, 2010.

Eye Protection

The good news against the threat that sun poses to eye health is that protection is as close as the eyeglass store. Today’s sunglasses are very protective, if chosen wisely. Following are a few key standards to watch for when choosing sunglasses:  

  • 100% UV protection is best and should be an important factor in your decision.
  • Polarized sunglasses do not protect as much as 100% UV, but they improve vision when in the sun, on the water, or driving on the road. They protect the eyes, as well.  
  • Lenses should wrap around and exclude as much light from the outside as possible or should be very large for the same purpose.  
  • Wide brim hats are helpful in eliminating radiation that gets around the lens of sunglasses. They also help protect skin. 
  • Color of glass lenses is less important if the above factors are observed. However, bronze, copper or reddish-brown tints give the greatest protection against HEV.

The bottom line is that as we age and stay active outdoors, we need to protect our eyes by wearing 100% UV protective shades while enjoying the sun and water during summer.

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Cataracts Video

During normal vision, light first passes through the cornea, which is the clear covering of the eye, and then through the pupil, which is actually a hole in the iris or colored part of the eye. The light then passes through the lens where the image is focused onto the retina at the back of the eye. The image is then converted to electrical signals that are sent to the brain.

It is essential that the lens remains transparent in order for clear vision. When cataracts occur, the lens becomes cloudy or opaque, preventing light from passing clearly to the retina. Cataracts often occur as a person ages but can develop as a result of other medical conditions. A doctor will need to perform an eye examination in order to confirm the diagnosis of cataracts and to recommend treatment.

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