10/13/2016 12:16 EDT | Updated 10/13/2016 12:16 EDT

The Costly Consequences Of Vision Loss

closeup of eyesight measurement with a optical phoropter
Click_and_Photo via Getty Images
closeup of eyesight measurement with a optical phoropter

A colleague of mine recently shared with me a story about one of his patients: A 45-year-old woman recently visited her optometrist after noticing her vision was unusually fuzzy and distorted at times. This had been going on for a while, but she hadn't seen an optometrist for years and wasn't concerned. When she sat down in the exam chair, she had no idea that her life was about to change.

Her optometrist immediately recognized the signs of macular degeneration, a disease that causes painless and irreversible vision loss. This was a devastating diagnosis, particularly because the woman's vision loss likely could have been prevented, or at the very least delayed, with an earlier diagnosis. An eye exam just one year earlier could have uncovered the problem, allowing for treatment to begin.

Unfortunately, this happens all the time. A recent survey commissioned by the Alberta Association of Optometrists revealed that nearly 40 per cent of Albertans surveyed do not have a regular optometrist. When patients bypass their annual eye exam, they don't understand that the consequences could last a lifetime. This oversight results in significant costs for individuals whose lives have been affected, while vision loss is also quickly becoming a major burden for taxpayers and the Alberta economy.

According to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), vision loss has the highest direct health care costs of any disease in Alberta - higher than the cost of diabetes, cancer and musculoskeletal diseases combined. A 2012 CNIB study estimated that by 2022, the cost of vision loss in Alberta could increase to $3.3 billion per year if no action is taken. Alberta taxpayers are on the hook to cover those costs, which in 2012, amounted to $646 per resident.

World Sight Day is an opportunity for organizations, optometrists and individuals across the globe to shine a spotlight on this issue. The International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness estimates that 285 million people worldwide are visually impaired. Shockingly, an overwhelming 80 per cent of those cases could have been prevented or treated.

Those numbers could be drastically reduced if individuals followed a few basic steps. First, living a healthy and active lifestyle goes a long way towards minimizing the chances of losing vision. Not smoking, exercising regularly, eating a healthy and balanced diet, and wearing UV-protective sunglasses are all actions that can help preserve vision.

Second, it's important to visit a doctor of optometry on a regular basis for comprehensive eye exams. This could not only save your sight -- it could also help save your life. Along with symptomless eye diseases, many underlying health conditions are often first detected through an eye exam, ranging from diabetes and high blood pressure to certain forms of cancer.

Third, be sure that you are getting a comprehensive eye exam performed by an optometrist, rather than a basic vision or sight test. Vision and sight tests are limited and can't be used to diagnose a health or vision problem. In fact, studies have shown that 43 per cent of children with vision problems are able to pass vision screening tests performed in schools.

The Alberta Association of Optometrists recommends children have their first eye exam between six and nine months, another between the ages of two and five and every year after that. Healthy adults should see an optometrist at least every two years, and seniors should have annual eye exams. In Alberta, annual eye exams are covered for children up to age 18 and seniors 65 and older. Visits to an optometrist for eye-related emergencies or treatments are covered for everyone in the province.

The reality is, most people only book an eye exam when their vision deteriorates. Good vision does not necessarily equate to healthy eyes, because many problems show no symptoms at all. The woman with macular degeneration waited to see an optometrist until it was too late. Don't make that mistake -- make regular comprehensive eye exams a priority and protect one of your greatest assets - your sight.

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