With August being Women’s Month it is perfect timing to examine the factors that affect women’s vision. As we get older, age-related health conditions occur, and the eyes are no exception. This is especially true of women, who tend to live longer than men and are more likely than men to develop vision problems. Cataracts are more common in women who are also at higher risk to develop age-related macular degeneration. While open angle glaucoma affects males and females equally, the less common and more serious closed angle glaucoma is two to four times more likely to affect women.
Vision problems occur for a variety of reasons, but an imbalance in hormone levels is often the underlying cause. Hormones are chemicals in the body that regulate important body functions. Often called the messengers of the body, they travel through the bloodstream and other fluids to organs and tissues coordinating and controlling major functions. From childhood to old age everyone experiences hormone fluctuations which can affect all parts of the body including the eyes. Changes in hormone levels generally occur more frequently in women during the specific life-changing milestones of their lives.
As children go through the hormone fluctuations of puberty, their bodies change and grow rapidly, and so do their eyes. If their eyes lengthen too much, this can cause or worsen short-sightedness, leading to blurred distance vision. For girls the onset of menstruation brings huge changes in hormone production and estrogen levels which is thought to be largely responsible for changes in vision and eye health. Once hormones stabilise so should vision, but it is important to have annual eye examinations to assess and monitor vision changes.
After puberty women may continue to experience vision changes due to fluctuations in hormone levels. Women of child-bearing age commonly have changes in vision due to birth control pills or pregnancy. Hormonal shifts during pregnancy affect the surface of the eyes and can cause temporary eye conditions such as dry irritated or watery eyes as well as discomfort wearing contact lenses. Sometimes water retention has an effect on the shape and thickness of the cornea resulting in a slight change of vision. It is recommended that pregnant women wait until after the baby is born and hormones have stabilised to get a new prescription. In addition to birth control pills, other medications such as antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and antihistamines, can cause changes in vision.
Fortunately, blurry vision due to hormonal changes during pregnancy resolves when hormones level out. However, if your vision doesn’t return to normal a couple of months after pregnancy, or if there are sudden vision changes it is important to see your optometrist to rule out more serious eye conditions.
The hormonal shifts associated with perimenopause and menopause often trigger vision changes in older women. Declining estrogen levels may lead to dry eye syndrome which is characterised by itching, watering, light sensitivity and a feeling of grittiness as the watery layer of the tears evaporates more easily. Trouble focusing close up may be due to increased water retention and inflammation of the cornea. The dryness and the change in refraction can cause blurry vision and can also make wearing contact lenses difficult.
While most of the vision changes which take place during menopause are irreversible, certain healthy lifestyle behaviours can help to maintain vision and reduce the negative effects of hormonal fluctuations. Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables and follow a diet rich in omega 3, zinc and vitamin C, or take recommended supplements. Ask your optometrist to suggest eye drops or artificial tears to relieve the symptoms of dry eye syndrome. Use a humidifier and avoid overly dry rooms indoors, and wear sunglasses outdoors to eliminate the drying effects of wind and smoke. Visit your optometrist regularly to monitor your eye health as well as be aware of health conditions such as diabetes and thyroid problems that may be evident in the eyes.