They’re the windows to your soul and aid your view of the world. Your eyes are delicate organs comprised of thousands of fine vessels that often show the first signs of illness, yet many of us pay no attention to the health of our eyes until something goes wrong.

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Taking the gift of sight for granted is particularly apparent in young people – after all, aren’t glasses for the over 40s? This may well be the case for most people, but eye health is concerned with far more than your ability to see the small print at the optometrist’s surgery.

Nasty conditions like glaucoma and macular degeneration – leading causes of blindness in Australia – as well as other diseases affecting the optic nerve can be prevented or treated early with regular eye tests. For young, healthy women, detecting abnormalities early may mean the difference between vision problems at 75 years of age rather than 55.

So in the interests of healthy peepers, I book an appointment at the swish new OPSM eye hub in the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn. Having always prided myself on my good eyesight and commitment to the sunglasses revolution, this is just as much a test of my ego as it is the health of my eyes. So I’m ever so slightly apprehensive.

Testing times

My optometrist, the lovely Georgina Preece, talks me through each test, explaining that none are particularly invasive or uncomfortable. I’d have to agree – I only felt a hint of discomfort during the ‘puff test’, where air is puffed into my open eye. But compared to, say, a trip to the dentist, it’s hardly worth mentioning.

First up, ocular photography – permanent digital documentation of the current appearance of the front and back of my eye – monitors the general health of my eyes. In the future it will help detect any subtle changes in the appearance of the inside of my eye, and also plays a vital role in early detection of sight-threatening conditions like glaucoma, diabetes and macular degeneration.

A screening test of my peripheral vision then looks below the surface of my eyes to check for early signs of glaucoma and other diseases. It measures the eyes’ field of view, which is important for things like driving.

Finally, an optical coherence tomography (OCT) – similar to a 3D cat scan – looks at what is happening beneath the surface of the retina. I’m also tested on my long and short vision – the good old ‘RQDVA’ sequence makes an appearance here.

The whole process takes about 45 minutes, including a general chat with Preece about my lifestyle and particular strain my eyes may be subject to.

The UV connection

Being summer, Preece and I discuss the importance of protection from the sun, as in our sunburnt country UV is a major contributor to eye troubles. UV light can promote the development of cateracts, pterygium (growth of tissue on the white part of the eye that can block vision), cancer of the skin around the eye, photokeratitis (sunburn of the cornea), corneal degenerative changes and age-related macular degeneration.

Yet according to recent Newspoll research, only 10 per cent of respondents to a survey on UV damage mentioned harm to the eyes as a negative effect, compared to 94 per cent who mentioned cancer and 75 per cent who specifically noted skin cancer.

“Australia’s high levels of UV can cause long term and permanent harm to the health of your eyes,” says Shirley Loh, professional services manager for the Optometrists Association Australia (OAA). “Because damage is cumulative, the choices you make now will affect you in the future.”

Preece agrees, explaining: “Most of the diseases that can happen in the eye, apart from something that is caused by the rest of your body like diabetes or blood pressure problems, all come down to UV.”

The solution is a trendy no-brainer: wear sunglasses when it’s sunny. A 2010 survey carried out by the OAA found only half of adults ensure they always wear sunglasses on sunny days, while 62 per cent are unsure if their sunglasses provide 100 per cent UV blockage.

“Everyone should be wearing sunglasses, even in winter,” Preece says. “Any sunglasses you buy in Australia meet UV protection. It may not be a well-made optical lense, there may be warps, but the difference between a cheap and expensive lense is the optical clarity of the lense.”

The two-year gap

The verdict? It’s good news: I have better than 20-20 vision. And just as important, my lense is crystal clear and my eyes are free from lumps and bumps. What a relief – for now.

We should have our eyes tested every two years, Preece says.

“Every two years is standard. All the things that go wrong in the eyes – unless you suddenly wake up and can’t see – these little niggling diseases that people don’t pick up on, they’re slow diseases. Being able to document everything while the eye is healthy is really important.”

Unfortunately, the importance of eye health can get lost in the local shopping centre, as most optometrists operate out of retail stores.

“We are seen as somewhere where you go to get glasses,” Preece says. “Often we don’t find the health problems until it’s too late or as secondary to someone getting glasses. People go to their GP for regular checkups and I think their reluctance to get their eyes checked is partly because we’re in a retail environment.

“In terms of making it a feasible business, in Australia everyone wants their eye test to be bulk billed and you have to pay for this technology somehow – that’s the glasses.”

And with the total cost of vision disorders in Australia reaching $4.8 billion in 2006, the $150 out-of-pocket cost of my test will likely save my hip pocket in the long term, as well as improve the health of my eyes. And that – pardon the pun – is a sight for sore eyes. c