According the Vision Health Initiative from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “only half of the estimated 61 million adults in the United States classified as being at high risk for serious vision loss” had been to an eye doctor in the past year.

“People put off an eye exam because they see well, but you have to have a routine eye exam even if you’re seeing clearly,” says Janet E. Summers, O.D., CMHP, Medical Director, Davis Vision and VP Clinical Standards, HVHC INC. “It’s part of preventive health, having an eye exam once a year, whether you think you need it or not.”

CLOSER LOOK: Visiting the optometrist is just as important as visiting any other physician, as eye exams and eye health can reveal a significant amount of an individual's overall health.

Vital investment

Regular eye exams can keep your vision and your general health in check. If there is a problem, early detection can help you treat the condition now, saving time, money and potentially your vision too.

“It’s the least expensive, most impactful investment you can make in your overall health,” says Dr. Summers, who with Davis Vision’s Fit Fwd wellness program, emphasizes how a comprehensive eye exam can be completed in under an hour.

It’s cost effective too. According to a report by the Institute for HealthCare Consumerism a $1 employer benefit investment could yield a $5+ ROI.

Plus healthy employees mean fewer sick days, reduced health costs and increased employee loyalty.

Direct view

Eyes are the only place in the body where you can look directly at blood vessels.

“Any disease that affects blood vessels throughout the entire body can be seen in the eyes because blood vessels are really tiny,” says Dr. Summers, explaining, “therefore a diagnosis can be made during an eye exam long before a diagnosis can be made with urine, blood or other symptoms.”

While checking vision and looking into the eyes is important, the most effective tool is a dilated eye exam.

Dr. Summers compares an undilated eye exam to “looking into a room through a keyhole,” versus a dilated eye exam as being “able to open that door wide open and actually walk into that room.”

According to the National Eye Institute, drops placed in the eyes can dilate or widen the pupil, which allows more light to enter the eye. Dilated eyes are examined with a special magnifying lens, allowing the eye doctor to see the back of the eye, such as the macula, optic nerve and retina.

While checking vision and looking into the eyes is important, the most effective tool is a dilated eye exam.

Common concerns

Comprehensive eye exams can help eye doctors diagnose many health conditions including sickle cell anemia, AIDS, thyroid conditions and brain tumors, as well as other ailments.

In diabetics, “blood starts to leak out of the little walls of the vessels, just as if you had pinholes in a garden hose,” says Dr. Summers, noting without an eye exam, patients don’t necessarily notice those hemorrhages until they are severe.

An eye exam can also reveal a patient’s high blood pressure. An eye doctor can see how typically gently curved blood vessels become straight due to increased pressure.

In multiple sclerosis, a patient’s color vision changes because the optic nerve is affected. That brightness difference can be detected during an eye exam.

Without a checkup, many glaucoma patients wouldn’t even know they have it. “Most of the time it’s a very slow, progressive asymptomatic disease that’s diagnosed via three different but simple tests during an eye exam,” says Dr. Summers.

Risk factors

Like many health conditions, different people have different risk factors. Age, genetics, ethnicity and lifestyle can impact your sight.

According to the American Optometric Association (AOA), people over 60 are at increased risk of developing glaucoma and African Americans are at greater glaucoma risk than Caucasians, starting at age 40.

Knowing your family history is important too. The AOA says genetic changes appear to be responsible for half the reason people get macular degeneration.

Good habits, like not smoking, can also help vision.

Calling it “a risk factor that can contribute to sight loss,” Dr. Summers says smoking increases a patient’s risk of developing cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.

Adults and kids starting at age three should get annual eye exams. If vision or eye problems are diagnosed, eye doctors, primary care doctors and specialists can treat the patient together.