Eye health isn’t always at the forefront of our minds, even though our vision is something that most of us can’t imagine living without. According to Guide Dogs NSW/ACT, 49% of Aussies would rather lose their leg or memory than their vision.
To further fuel concerns over vision loss, more than 13 million Australians (55% of the population) in 2018 self-reported that they have one or more long-term eye conditions, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
Most of us could probably recall our mums yelling at us not to sit close to the television as kids unless we want our eyesight to get worse. This begs the question, is most of our poor eye health self-inflicted? Or does it have something to do with our genetics?
We’ve spelled out everything you’d want to know about eye health, from potential causes (including how bad habits worsen common eye conditions) to treatment costs and how private cover can help.
Why is your eyesight getting worse?
As you age, your eyesight naturally declines. Certain conditions are inevitable with advancing age, such as cataracts. Some conditions cause a decline in clear vision because of your eye’s shape, which influences how light enters your retina. Other eye issues may be a result of other health conditions, such as diabetes.
Eye conditions will usually progress at varying rates depending on:
- your genetics
- your diet
- whether you exercise
- whether or not you provide your eyes with sufficient UV protection
- how long and how often you spend looking at screens
- if you have diabetes
- if you smoke.
Although your poor eyesight is mainly genetic, your lifestyle can significantly slow down the rate at which your eyesight declines and improve your eye health. In fact, 75% of vision loss is preventable or treatable.3 That’s to say, you can’t completely prevent certain conditions through lifestyle choices alone.3
For example, refractive errors are long-term eye conditions that develop during childhood due to the shape of your eyes. Though environmental and lifestyle habits could significantly slow down its progression, unless you surgically correct your eyes, your condition will likely affect your sight throughout your life.3
Age-related conditions are also inevitable for most people and cannot be completely prevented with lifestyle choices.3 However, you can slow down the progression of age-related conditions with your lifestyle choices.
What makes your eyesight worse?
While most eye conditions are genetic, certain habits can worsen these conditions. If you notice your eyesight getting worse, you can follow these habits as a prevention measure and to keep your eyes healthy.
These are 10 common habits that accelerate declining eye health, according to Better Health Victoria.
- frequently exposing your eyes to UV rays without adequate protection. Ultraviolet rays can cause irreversible damage to your eyes and can contribute to many eye conditions, such as cataracts;
- not exercising or eating healthy. Eating a balanced diet with lots of fruit and vegetables can help keep your blood vessels, eyes and body healthy. High sugar and cholesterol diets can contribute to high blood pressure and poor health, which can accelerate several eye conditions;
- staring at screens (computer, mobile, tablets, television) for long periods without taking breaks. This habit is difficult to avoid in our increasingly digital world; however, it can cause eye strain and tired eyes – a recipe for long-term damage to your vision;
- using improper lighting when you’re working or reading. Low lights or bright lights can also cause eye strain;
- smoking. This habit is notoriously damaging to your overall health. Smoking constricts your blood vessels, including the vital blood vessels that provide blood and nutrients to your eyes; and
- not visiting your optometrist regularly for check-ups. Many Australians don’t get regular check-ups, especially if they don’t think they need glasses. However, regular check-ups can help you detect any issues early so that you can tackle the issue before it gets worse.
Common eye issues in Australia
Certain habits and lifestyle choices may impact these common eye issues across the nation.
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD)
AMD is a progressive condition affecting the macula (central part of the retina), which you use for daily tasks that require fine vision, like reading, recognising faces and driving. As the condition progresses, central vision is irreversibly lost, but peripheral vision can still be maintained.
In 2017-18, one per cent of Aussies (243,600 people) had AMD. The risk of getting AMD can be significantly reduced by not smoking tobacco.2
Cataracts are a condition where the lens of the eye becomes clouded. The light that passes through the retina becomes reduced and scattered because of the clouding, which causes blurred vision. In many cases, the eyes become sensitive to light and glare, and colours look faded.
In 2017-18, 1.7 per cent of Aussies (410,800 people) had cataracts.2 The Department of Health stated that ‘the risk of developing cataracts is significantly higher in people with low dietary intakes of fruits and vegetables, vitamins C and E and betacarotene’.
Glaucoma is an eye condition where optic nerve damage causes vision loss or blindness. If you have glaucoma, you may experience a loss of peripheral vision, which could progress to tunnel vision.
The development of this condition can be attributed to advancing age. Those with high intra-ocular pressure are also at risk.
Diabetic retinopathy (DR)
DR is a condition where the blood vessels in the retina swell and leak fluid. If left untreated, blood vessels may grow on the surface of the retina, and the subsequent bleeding may cloud the vision and cause blindness.
Those at highest risk for DR include those who have:
- had diabetes for many years
- a poor diet
- kidney damage
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol.
Refractive errors are the most common type of visual impairment in Australia. Refractive errors usually develop during childhood. The four types of refractive errors are:
- Presbyopia is an age-related condition where your eyes lose flexibility and their ability to focus on close objects. This condition gradually takes place in the later stages of life;
- Also known as short-sightedness, myopia is a condition where your eyes are longer than usual, or your cornea is too steep.3 This makes it difficult to see objects far away;
- Also known as long-sightedness, hyperopia is a condition where your eyes are shorter than usual, or your cornea is too shallow. This makes it difficult to see objects closeby; and
- People with astigmatism have blurred vision due to their eyes not being perfectly curved.6 Lights at night may look particularly streaky or have halos around them, which can make activities like night driving difficult.
In 2017-18, 27.7 per cent of Aussies had myopia and 25 per cent had hyperopia.2
Amblyopia (lazy eye)
Also known as ‘lazy eye’, amblyopia is a condition where the brain favours one eye and suppresses vision in the other, which causes reduced or dim vision in the suppressed eye.
How much are Aussies spending on their eye health per year?
Unfortunately, there aren’t regular surveys or reports from Medicare on expenditure for optometry and ophthalmology services in Australia. However, in 2017-18, there were 9.4 million Medicare claims for 7.2 million patients in optometry consultations.2
Australians spend an average of $243 on prescription glasses and $179 on prescription sunglasses, according to Optometry Australia.
How can health insurance help cover treatment for eye conditions?
General optical (e.g., prescription glasses or prescription contact lenses for refractive errors) are usually covered by extras cover up to an annual dollar limit. Compare a variety of health insurance policies with our health insurance comparison tool to find a suitable policy for you.
Other major treatments, such as laser eye surgery, may attract a benefit from a top level extras policy as it’s an outpatient procedure and not on the Medicare Benefits Schedule. Check the policy brochure to see how much of the costs is covered and what the waiting periods for coverage are.
If you’re looking for a policy that covers procedures in a private hospital for conditions such as cataract removal, you will need to look into a Gold level private hospital policy or you may also find this procedure is covered on some Silver Plus private health insurance policies. Find out more about the different categories of health insurance.
Find out more about optical cover with private health insurance. If you’re unsure if your policy covers your eye condition, check your policy’s Product Disclosure Statement (PDS) or contact your insurance provider.
 Guide Dogs NSW/ACT. (2017). Aussies fearful of sight loss yet blind to the reality. Accessed 12 May 2020.
 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2019). Eye health. 12 May 2020.
 Vision 2020 Australia. (2009). Clear Focus: The Economic Impact of Vision Loss in Australia in 2009. Accessed 13 May 2020.
 Better Health – Victoria. (2015). 10 tips for good eye health. Accessed 13 May 2020/
 Health Direct. (2019). Long-sightedness (hyperopia). Accessed 13 May 2020.
 Better Health – Victoria. Common eye problems. Accessed 13 May 2020.