My recent, exhaustive story on sport sunglasses for The Wirecutter has inspired me to shed some light on the state of masters athletes’ eyes. In terms of sports and sun exposure, your eyes are always at risk. Doesn’t matter how old they (or you) are. Unprotected—and often underprotected—eyes need good sunglasses.
As we age, eye protection is increasingly important. Long hours in the sun mean exposure to UV rays, which means added risk of cataracts—clouding of the should-be-clear lens of the eye. Even before they become really serious, nascent cataracts are a drag, and they only get worse. “Two things are happening simultaneously,” says John Seegers, 56, who founded optician-training program Optician Works and is also an avid cyclist, hiker, and climber. “The amount of light getting through to the retina is less. And the ability for the eye to focus across a wide range of distances is compromised.”
Seegers recommends playing defense by wearing, in his exact words, “quality sunglasses.”
Why not just buy $10 convenience-store shades? The truth and good news is that virtually all sunglasses offer 100% UV protection. But, according to the American Optometric Association, the UV exposure that wreaks such havoc on your eyes may be cumulative and stretch over the entire course of your lifetime. So if you didn’t shade your eyes back in your wild years, or if those cheapie sunglasses actually spend more time atop your head or in the glove compartment than in front of your eyes? Return to Seegers’ guidance: quality. Sunglasses work only if you wear them.
High-quality sunglasses are eye-pleasing (from both directions), and as I found after 120 or so hours of wear-testing for my Wirecutter story, the best ones improve upon reality! Cheapos offer the required protection, but they can also cause eyestrain. (Cheap, mass-produced sunglass lenses are simply produced in flat sheets and bent into shape, guaranteeing optical distortion.)
If you spurn the wearing of shades, you’re also looking beyond cataracts—that is, to these other eye-related bugaboos:
Age-related macular degeneration. AMD, which is related to UV exposure, is the major cause of reduced vision among Americans over 55. Proof exists that invisible UV rays and visible blue rays lead to damage of the macula, a region near the center of the retina. AMD may not lead to complete blindness, but it can damage vision enough to make it impossible to pursue our favorite outdoor pastimes (or to read this website).
Pterygium, a little growth on the white of the eye, is also linked to UV exposure. Surgically removable, but pterygium that goes untreated can cause visual loss.
Skin cancer. For the same reason we need to protect any exposed part of our body when we’re outside, we need to protect our eyelids and the skin around our eyes.
Photokeratitis, aka snow blindness. We’ve all read the horror stories of athletes: high-altitude mountain climbers succumbing to this blinding sunburn of the cornea. The loss of vision is temporary, but that’s small consolation when you’re negotiating a 7,000-meter peak.
Dry eye syndrome. “Although not the epidemic TV [advertising] implies, dry eye is pretty common in older adults,” says John Seegers. “Get outside, add wind, and it only gets worse. Good coverage reduces dry eye a little.”
Eyestrain. Remember, cheap sunglasses cause eyestrain. Fork out $50 or more and you’re pretty well assured of eliminating eyestrain. Fork out $100 or more, and your eyes will love you forever.
In a future post I’ll offer some shade-shopping guidance specifically for aging athletes. Can’t wait? Dive into that comprehensive review of mine.