How to Slow the Decline of Your Eyesight

Myopia and vision problems are rising dramatically. Follow these tips to protect your eyes and prevent age-related degeneration.

Photo by Victorien Ameline on Unsplash

The Kawymeno Waorani are a small tribe of people living in total isolation from the modern world. Burrowed deep inside the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest, they never discovered agriculture, still hunt their food, and speak a language that shares no words with any known language. But there is another fascinating fact about these people: their eyesight doesn’t decline with age.

In contrast, modern humans are becoming shortsighted at an alarming rate. Eye strain, dry eyes, and eye fatigue are on the rise. By 2050, half of humanity will require corrective lenses at their fifth birthday.

In a study published by the American Academy of Ophthalmology, researchers split seven hundred first graders into two groups. The first group had to spend more than eleven hours per week outdoors. The second group received no such instruction and, as a result, spent significantly less time outdoors. After a year-long trial, researchers ran a wide range of eye tests on all participants. The results were astounding. Compared to group two, group one slowed the progression of myopia by more than fifty per cent.

The science is clear: being outside is good for your eyes. Not getting enough daylight, scientists argue, deprives your eyes of violet light that is critical to their functioning, putting you at higher risk of becoming shortsighted. Spending more time outdoors, even in the presence of cloud covers, helps you sustain better eyesight.

Another eyesight-killer is looking at things up close for too long. To see things closely, the eye muscles contract to make the eyes’ lenses thicker (hold a finger up close and focus on it; you’ll sense a tension behind your eyes.) But when you gaze far away, these muscles relax, and your eyes’ lenses flatten (notice how relaxing it is to look at the horizon.) If done for hours straight, short distance looking puts enormous pressure on your eye muscles that yearn to relax.

Research shows that a close-up work routine, combined with little exposure to daylight, increases the risk of myopia by sixteenfold. If you have access to a window, a balcony, or a terrace, use it frequently to look far in the distance. Most monitors these days have an eye ergonomics option you can use to time your breaks. Window gazing not only relieves the eyes but also frees the cerebral cortex from processing information, making you more relaxed.

Exercising your eye muscles can be remarkably helpful in relieving eye fatigue, strain, and dry eye syndromes. In one study, participants suffering eye fatigue performed a set of eye movement exercises for thirty minutes a day, five days a week. Each session involved eye movements such as blinking, front and sideways viewing, rotational viewing, nose tip gazing, and near-distant viewing. When they were reevaluated six weeks later, their eye fatigue scores were down a staggering forty per cent. In contrast, their colleagues who didn’t partake in the training but were monitored for comparison saw their condition worsen; their eye fatigue scores were fifteen percent higher.

A simple eye movement exercise you can do daily is smooth pursuit. Simply hold your gaze on a target (the tip of your finger or a pen). Then without moving your head, track the target while slowly moving your hand from left to right, up to down, or trace the infinity sign. Smooth pursuit engages the eye muscles in new ways and makes them stronger, says Andrew Huberman, a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford School of Medicine. That’s because most of our eye movements are saccadic (sudden jumps from one target to the next). Smooth pursuits, however, require fixating on a moving target — something most of us seldom do.

Our eyes cannot see well without a certain amount of nutrients. When studying the Kawymeno, researchers found their food consumption to be more varied than any known group of people. In fact, the Kawymeno eat 130 food species, including 76 varieties of wild fruits and 42 different animals. Experts believe this widely diversified diet is why the Kawymeno maintain sharp eyes even as they age.

Certain nutrients can slow — or even prevent — the progress of eye-related diseases, such as glaucoma, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, and age-related macular degeneration. Among these nutrients are vitamin A, E, C, B2, B3, B6, B9, B12, fatty acids, and the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin. Of course, you don’t need a hunter-gatherer diet with a hundred food species to cover this list. Still, eating more leafy plants, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and healthy fats is key to providing your eyes with the nutrients they need to stay healthy.

Correlation does not imply causation. Yet, large surveys show that athletic people maintain better eyesight as they age. Aerobic training reduced the overgrowth of eye blood vessels in mice — a key contributor to macular degeneration — down to 45 per cent. It also made them twice less likely to suffer retinal damage after getting exposed to bright light. While comprehensive studies are still underway on humans, all evidence points to a strong link between a body that is active and eyes that are resistant to decline.

Unlike most of us, the Kawymeno didn’t break the contract their eyes had with nature. They still spend their time scanning horizons instead of staring at screens. They still eat many plants and fruits instead of processed meals. They still climb, and crawl, and run, and swim, and walk-in broad daylight. When they look at the world, it is with the same piercing eyes our hunter-gatherer ancestors had.

Even if the Kawymeno lifestyle is forever out of reach, small changes to your lifestyle can help you achieve eyesight that resists ageing.

  • Get outside as much as you can. Even in the presence of cloud covers, you will get more daylight than indoors.
  • If you’re in an office, disengage from screens to look out your window.
  • Set a minute or two each day to practice eye movement exercises and strengthen your eye muscles.
  • Add more fruits and vegetables to your meals.
  • Keep your body active: jog, swim, brisk walk. Increasing your heart rate facilitates blood flow to your eye nerves which keeps them healthy.

These habits, as simple as they are, can protect your eyes for years to come.

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