Eye Health and Smoking:

Smoking Impacts Eye Health Too

by Orlin Sorensen

It's a rare person who is not aware that smoking can cause lung and other cancers, but did you know smoking can have an adverse effect on your vision as well?

Age-related macular degeneration (ARMD) is perhaps the most significant threat to smokers' eye health. The link between smoking and ARMD is as strong as the link between smoking and lung cancer, yet few are aware of the link or even of ARMD.

Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss and legal blindness in Americans age 65 and older, according to the eye-health organization Prevent Blindness America. The macula is the part of the retina we use for reading, driving, recognizing faces, watching television, and fine work: in short, it is the region of maximum visual acuity. Smoking causes damage to the macula, which is found in the retina, where light-sensitive cells process images.

Studies have shown that people who stopped smoking 20 years ago have a similar risk of developing ARMD as nonsmokers, and that the risk starts to decrease after ten years of not smoking.

Also, a Chinese University of Hong Kong study has found strong links between smoking and toxic damage to the eye. Depending on the amount of exposure, secondhand smoke can create similar dangers for nonsmokers. Toxins associated with smoking may decrease blood flow or cause clots to develop within eye capillaries, cutting off vital nutrients essential for eye health. Smoking also causes development of free radicals, which can disrupt normal function of otherwise healthy cells and lead to eye disease.

Smoking may be a risk factor for other eye conditions, including:

  • Cataracts: There is conclusive evidence that smoking causes nuclear cataracts. Recent reviews have found smokers' risk of developing nuclear cataracts to be up to 2.9 times that of those who have never smoked.

  • Glaucoma: Smoking causes shrinkage or constriction of blood vessels, which is directly linked to rising inner eye pressure that can lead to glaucoma and accompanying optic nerve damage.

  • Graves' ophthalmopathy: This condition, often associated with thyroid disease, disrupts muscle control of the eye; smoking has been shown to increase the risk of developing thyroid disease.

  • Diabetic Retinopathy: While smoking may not directly cause diabetic retinopathy, most experts agree that quitting smoking helps stop progression of the disease.

So this year, as part of your fall cleaning, you may want to start with yourself. Quitting smoking is hard, but isn't your vision worth it?

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