Optometrists: looking out for your health

Patsy Westcott / 03 October 2012

Optometrists do much more than checking your eyesight - they are also trained to diagnose and treat eye problems, including the leading causes of sight loss, so don't dodge regular check-ups

Good eyesight is essential not just for seeing the world around you but also for preventing falls in later life. But as we get older presbyopia, natural ageing of the eye in which the crystalline lens in the eye loses its flexibility, can make it harder to focus on close objects such as the fine print on a menu or book. 

You may also be more sensitive to glare. The risk of developing sight-threatening eye conditions also increases with age. Meanwhile factors such as exposure to sunlight, smoking, poor diet and even lack of exercise can all take their toll on vision.

Regular visits to the optometrist can help keep eyes sharp and spot eye problems at an early stage. And that’s not all. “The eyes are windows into the body and an eye examination can reveal health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, thyroid problems and even certain types of cancer, long before they produce more obvious symptoms,” explains optometrist Karen Lockyer, who has a practice in London’s Battersea.

What do optometrists do?

Optometrists – who used to be known as ophthalmic opticians - are trained to examine your eyes and diagnose vision problems, eye diseases and other conditions, to prescribe glasses and contact lenses as well as medications for common eye conditions.

What does an optometrist appointment involve?

There’s a lot more to eye tests these days than simply reading the alphabet chart and you can expect to have a battery of checks. The exact ones will depend on your individual needs. These include tests for visual acuity, the shape, size and function of your pupils and muscle movement. 

Many eye examinations now include digital retinal photography, a snapshot of the back of your eye, which gives a clear picture of eye health as well as indicating the presence of conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. 

You can expect to have the pressure inside your eye tested (intraocular pressure or IOP) using a special instrument called a tonometer and an examination with ‘slit lamp’, or illuminated microscope, to check the health of the outer surface of your eye.

What are optometrists looking for?

The optometrist is looking for specific eye problems including three of the leading causes of sight loss: age-related macular degeneration (AMD), glaucoma, which affects the optic nerve and cataracts, the cause of 26 per cent of cases of sight loss in people aged 75+. 

Other conditions they will be on the lookout for include keraconjunctivitis sicca (dry eye syndrome), the most common cause of eye irritation in people aged 65 plus, and floaters (little dots and tadpole like shapes) usually caused by general wear and tear but occasionally an early warning of a detached retina.

How often do I need an eye test?

Unless your optometrist has advised you otherwise it’s a good idea to have sight test once every two years and once a year if you are 70 or over or once a year if you have diabetes or a family history of glaucoma.

Where can I find an optometrist?

You’ll find an optometrist on your local high street or if you have reduced mobility you may be entitled to a free NHS eye exam and follow-up services at home. Optometrists must be registered with the General Optical Council, the profession’s regulatory body, and be listed in the Opticians Register. Check for the letters FCOptom or MCOptom after their name.

How much will a visit to the optometrist cost?

More than 30 million people in the UK are entitled to free eye examinations on the NHS. These include 

  • those aged 60 and over 
  • people with diabetes
  • those over 40 with a close relative with glaucoma
  • people on a low income 
  • registered blind or partially-sighted 
  • in need of complex lenses 
  • anyone who lives in Scotland

If you use a computer at work you may also be entitled to a sight test paid for by your employer. Otherwise expect to pay between £20 and £30 or more for more sophisticated tests for example using a retinal laser camera.

Find out more about optometrists

To learn more visit www.college-optometrists.org or www.eyecaretrust.org.uk/

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.