In a 2012 survey from the American Optometric Association, more than half of the respondents reported that they valued their eyesight more than their memory or ability to walk. However, you may be making little decisions every day that could be compromising your most indispensable sense. “Constantly interacting with screens, missing out on essential nutrients, forgetting your sunglasses—these innocent-sounding habits can stealthily take a toll on healthy eyes,” says optometrist Hilary L. Hawthorne, a trustee of the American Optometric Association. Also, we often skip yearly eye exams, which puts not only our eyes but also our overall health at risk. Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to turn things around. Many of these expert-recommended tips can be done in the blink of a you-know-what.
1. Keep Screens at a Distance
Screens have proliferated far beyond laptops and desktops. Now there are smartphones, tablets, e-readers, and MP3 players—not to mention the screens that we encounter at airports, subway and train stations, movie theaters, and sporting events. The contrast and the glare of an electronic screen can eventually lead to eyestrain and, in some cases, computer vision syndrome, which happens after prolonged use. Symptoms can include headaches, blurred vision, neck pain, dry or red eyes, fatigue, double vision, and difficulty refocusing.
It’s actually middle-aged people who spend the most time in front of screens—an average of 9.5 hours a day, according to a study by the Council for Research Excellence. “Not only are we viewing screens for longer periods without breaks, but we’re working with handheld devices at closer distances than we would with printed materials,” says optometrist Mark Rosenfield, Ph.D., a professor of clinical education at the State University of New York College of Optometry, in Manhattan. (And as you age, the closer you are to an object when you read it, the more work your eyes have to do to maintain focus.)
Experts recommend that you keep your eyes at least an arm’s length from a computer screen and 16 inches from a handheld device. However, according to a 2011 paper published in the journal Optometry and Vision Science, people on average hold smartphones about 14 inches away when reading and sometimes as close as seven inches.
If you can’t easily read the text on your handheld’s screen from at least 16 inches away, increase the font size. To minimize eyestrain with any device, make sure that you’re reading in soft lighting that doesn’t cause glare. For a desktop computer, consider investing in an antiglare filter that clips to the monitor (such as 3M’s, $69, amazon.com).
2. Take Blinking Breaks
In everyday life, we blink about 15 to 20 times a minute. But that rate drops by half when we’re viewing text on a screen. “Blinking is important because the upper eyelid spreads tears over the front of the eye, or cornea, just like a windshield wiper works,” says Rosenfield. “If you don’t do it enough, the cornea can dry out and feel irritated.” He recommends using the 20/20/20 rule when staring at a screen: Every 20 minutes, look 20 feet away for 20 seconds so you can blink naturally and give your eyes time to relax. If you suffer from chronically dry eyes, try using a laptop instead of a desktop computer. When you’re looking down at a laptop, less eye surface is exposed and there’s less tear evaporation and your eyes stay more moist. If you have to use a desktop, raise your chair or tilt your screen four inches below eye level, as measured from the center of the screen, so you aren’t looking straight ahead. Find more dry eye treatments.