This irritating eye problem that once targeted women over 50 has set its sights on a much younger population. Find relief with these six simple strategies
Cool: Looking up to your mom.
Not cool: Mirroring her vision problems.
Yet, here we are in 2019, with more and more millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) calling their eye doctors, looking for help dealing with dry eye symptoms and comparing notes about moisturizing eye drops with their mom.
Up until about a decade ago, postmenopausal women made up the bulk of chronic dry eye sufferers, says Scott Schachter, O.D., of Pismo Beach, California, an expert on dry eye syndrome who recently spoke at a Dry Eye Awareness Month congressional briefing in Washington, D.C.
Today, these women are sharing the bothersome daily symptoms—eyes that feel gritty, sting, look red, and (ironically) may be overly watery—with a much younger crowd.
So what’s changed? Two words: screen time.
Just as shifting hormones alter the tear production and quality for women over the age of 50, lengthy sessions with any digital device also mess with the eye’s natural moisture balance.
Dry Eyes: The Millennial Connection
Millennials are the first generation raised on computers, and now account for more than one-third of American workers. Many spend 10 or more hours every workday at their computers, sandwiched between morning and evening smartphone sessions, note researchers at the State University of New York College of Optometry.
Recent data from The Vision Council shows that 59 percent of these heavy computer users are dealing with digital eye strain symptoms, which include dry eyes, slightly blurred vision, headaches, and neck pain.
“We’re seeing dry eye and digital eye strain in much younger-age patients, which makes me quite concerned for the impact later in life,” says Schachter.
Left untreated, he says, dry eye could contribute to worsening quality of vision and quality of life. Eye comfort depends on a healthy tear film that blankets the surface of the eye. And a healthy tear film depends on oil glands in the upper and lower eyelids.
With every blink, oils are released to help keep the tear film from evaporating too quickly. “Once the oil glands in the eyelids begin to atrophy,” Schachter warns, “there’s no way to reverse the process.”
That’s why he’s encouraging his peers to start screening patients of all ages (even children) for dry eye and educating them about the best ways to prevent it.
Eye Versus Screen: Why You Lose
Ask the two to duke it out and the eye will win—you won’t go blind—but at a cost to your visual comfort. That’s because our eyes aren’t well-equipped to process a digital view.
According to the American Optometric Association, our eyes can be affected by the definition of the text, the contrast between the text and the background, the glare on the screen, and even the distance or angle at which we view screens.
We also blink 66 percent less often when we’re zoomed in on whatever is on the screen, according to data from the University of Iowa Eye Care Clinic. An optimum blink rate per minute is 17. The resulting lack of moisture sets off a vicious cycle: as the body slows down tear production, the diminished tears lead to even more dryness.
Researchers have also noticed that during intense screen-time sessions, many users will only partially blink. “It’s important that each blink results in a complete closure of the eye, with both lids completely meeting, for the tear film to get replenished,” says James Wolffsohn, Ph.D., an optometry professor and prominent dry eye researcher at Aston University in Birmingham, England. “That’s something that doesn’t always occur at the computer.”
It’s not just visual comfort that you need to worry about. A study reported in the Annals of Medical and Health Sciences Research journal found that the productivity level of digital eye strain (including dry eye) sufferers can drop by as much as 40 percent.
All the more reason to take proactive steps to prevent dry eye in the first place.
Six Ways to Sidestep Dry Eye at Work
- Stash lubricating eye drops next to your monitor. “Use the drops when you arrive at work, after lunch, and during the day as needed,” Wolffsohn suggests.
- Use an app or timer to remind yourself to take screen breaks. There are dozens to choose from, but one that’s got your eye health at heart is the Eye Care 20 20 20 app, which follows the American Optometric Association’s gold standard 20-20-20 rule.
Open the app when you log on to your phone or computer each day, and it will let you know when it’s time to take a 20-second break to refresh the eyes by gazing at an object that’s 20 feet away.
- Consider switching to daily contact lenses. If your dry eye symptoms are making it tough to wear your contact lenses, ask your eye doctor if daily disposables would be a good option for you. Many dry eye sufferers say starting with a fresh pair every day is more comfortable than using biweeklies or monthlies.
- Test out blue light-blocking glasses for night work. These specs with specially-coated lenses filter out some of the screen’s blue light and have been shown to reduce eye strain and promote healthier sleep among nighttime computer users, according to a 2016 study.
There’s no solid evidence to support suggesting that every computer user wear them to prevent digital eye strain or dry eye during the day. (Plus, they can make some computer tasks, like photo editing, hard to do.)
What’s known for sure is that the blue light from screens diminishes sleep-promoting melatonin. So if you catch up on your social media or answer emails in the evening, these might be handy to have so you can catch enough Zzzs.
- Set up an eye-smart workstation. Eye strain increases when your gaze is directed above eye level. Instead, adjust your monitor so you’re looking a bit below eye level, with the monitor placed a full arm’s length away from your eyes.
When looking back and forth between a printed page and a screen, each source should be placed at the same height to minimize visual readjustments.
University of Pennsylvania researchers suggest dimming any competing light sources in the room by drawing the shades or attaching a filter or light-blocking hood to the computer monitor to cut glare and reflections.
- Order fish for lunch. Not just any swimmers will do—go for the fatty fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines. These fish contain two omega-3 fats (DHA and EPA) that help your eyes’ oil glands do their job maintaining a proper moisture balance in the tear film.
When researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston looked at results from the landmark Women’s Health Study, they found that women who ate the most omega-3 fats from fish had a 17 percent lower risk of dry eye symptoms, compared to women who ate little to no seafood.
It’s worth noting that the researchers did not find the same dry eye benefits with plant foods high in omega-3s. Aim for two to three servings of fatty fish a week.
These steps often do the trick for mild-to-moderate cases of dry eye. But if your symptoms persist or get worse, talk to your eye doctor about additional prescriptions and in-office treatment options.
“We can’t ask people to give up computers, since that’s the world we live in. But we can find a way to make things better for anyone who uses computers all the time,” says Schachter.