The battle of the sexes has some handicaps when it comes to vision loss. A variety of reasons tend to leave women high and dry when it comes to visual disorders and many common eye diseases are much, much more likely to strike women than men. The numbers don’t lie on this one: when examining populations of both blind and visually impaired people in the US, women make up roughly two-thirds of each group.
But why exactly is that? Several factors contribute. First, as Neena Haider, co-chair of Women’s Eye Health, explains, women with families tend to let their own eye checkups lag even as they secure them for children – this and other lifestyle factors do figure into final prevalence of disorders. Second, the hormonal changes that women experience throughout the course of their lives can affect their entire bodies, eyes included. Third, some disorders are just genetically disposed to affect females.
Whatever the cause, and whatever the reason, there are a few unique vision problems women need to watch out for more than men. These range in severity and prevalence, but everything we’re covering here does come with a higher risk for women.
By far the most common eye disorder, dry eye can generally be seen in around five percent of the general population, according to a PubMed study. High though that number is, it doubles for postmenopausal women. The reason lies in the fluctuating levels of sex hormones that appear with menopause. The sharp decline in the levels of estrogen and hormones seems to negatively affect tear production, and without those natural lubricating drops, it’s much easier to wind up with some scratchy, desert-dry eyes.
Strangely enough though, hormone replacement therapy doesn’t seem to be the answer. Although it would seem like a logical response to the problem, the largest study on the subject to date has found that HRT actually increases a woman’s chances of experiencing dry eye.
For those with the disorder, discomfort is generally the first, but not always the last symptom. Dry eyes tend to be red, scratchy, and severely uncomfortable, with many sufferers describing the feeling as “gritty.” More serious symptoms can also appear if dry eye goes untreated. Sufferers tend to rub in response to discomfort. Infections become more of a risk, as pathogens often hitch a ride from hand to eyes. Even worse is a condition called keratoconus, which occurs when the cornea is actually worn down, assuming a more conical shape, which in turn interferes with effective focusing of light in the eye.
But for most, symptoms stop short at annoying. They’re also relatively easy to treat. Avoiding environmental factors can help – for example, if you notice dry at work, try to move away from air conditioners or other sources of dry air. Digital devices are also notorious for both causing and exacerbating dry eye cases, so take frequent breaks from any computer work. Finally, if you’re having a hard time finding relief, standard over-the-counter eye drops can help make up for lost moisture.
In general, women are more susceptible to autoimmune diseases than men, many of which do effect vision. As a blanket term, autoimmune disease covers sicknesses that are caused by the immune system reacting abnormally to other parts of the human body. Why this gender bias exists isn’t precisely understood, but some researchers have said that it may stem from the fact that female sex hormones tend to promote inflammation, a central feature of many autoimmune diseases.
Autoimmune diseases aren’t exactly a well-known threat and are all the more dangerous for it. There’s a long, long list of them, most of which are relatively unknown to the average person. They include:
- Probably the best known of the bunch – partly thanks to House – Lupus actually comes in a wide variety of subtypes. In each case, immune cells attack various organs, and in some of them, eyes are on the list, and can become swollen, light-sensitive, dry, and uncomfortable because of the disease.
- Sjögren’s syndrome probably poses the most direct threat to eyes. Sjögren’s patients’ white blood cells attack and eventually destroy the lacrimal glands, which are responsible for producing tears. If these are impaired, serious dry eye follows, and generally requires extensive therapy.
- Hyperthyroiditis is an autoimmune condition that can lead to Graves’ disease, which can in turn cause proptosis, manifested by eyes that swell and bulge, seeming to spill from their sockets. Cosmetic worries aside, proptosis can also lead to corneal hernias and even damage to the optic nerve.
Pregnancy-Related Vision Changes
The vision changes caused by pregnancy are closely linked to the flood of hormones that pregnant women experience. Most of these are thankfully temporary, but they can be alarming if not expected and quickly diagnosed.
Changes in eye moistness are among the most likely symptoms. Similar to menopause, it’s not unusual to have trouble with dry eyes during pregnancy. Unlike menopause, it’s also possible to get excessively wet eyes, which can cause the cornea to retain water and swell slightly. Not a serious problem by any means, but those minor changes can make for frustrating mornings for contact users.
The most serious threat that pregnancy poses is actually the effect it has on diabetic retinopathy. This condition occurs when small blood vessels in the retina, weakened by blood sugar and blood pressure changes brought on by diabetes, either rupture or begin to grow abnormal branches. Pregnancy can accelerate this effect, and frequent eye screenings are recommended to any diabetic expecting mothers as a result.