Cigarette smoke is extremely toxic, containing as many as 4,000 active compounds, including tar, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, and heavy metals. The percentage of adults who smoke has declined from 42% in 1965 to 18% in 2012. However, more than 42 million Americans still smoke. Smoking’s effect on the lungs has been well documented, but many people do not realize the effect smoking can have on the eyes.
Cataracts cloud the eye’s natural lens. More than 50 percent of Americans will develop a cataract or have cataract surgery by age 80. Studies have shown that smokers more than double their chance of developing cataracts. In fact, doctors have discovered a specific relationship between cataracts and the amount that you smoke. Your chance of developing cataracts increases the more you smoke. It is believed that smoking contributes to cataracts by altering the cells of the lens through oxidation. There is also evidence that smoking leads to the accumulation of heavy metals like cadmium in the lens.
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) affects the center of the retina, which is responsible for sharp, central vision needed for everyday tasks such as reading and driving. AMD is the leading cause of permanent vision loss among Americans age 65 and older. Studies show that smokers can have a two to four-fold increase in risk of developing AMD compared with people who have never smoked.
Uveitis, inflammation of the eye’s middle layer (uvea), is a serious eye disease that can result in complete vision loss. It harms vital structures of the eye, including the iris and retina, and can lead to complications such as cataracts, glaucoma, and retinal detachment. One study found that smokers have a 2.2 time greater risk of developing uveitis than non-smokers.
Researchers now know that smoking increases the risk of developing diabetes by raising blood glucose levels and reducing insulin resistance. In fact, smokers are 30–40% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than nonsmokers. No matter which type of diabetes you have, smoking makes it harder to control. Smoking can also increase the risk of developing diabetic retinopathy. This is caused when high blood sugar levels cause damage to blood vessels in the retina and can result in vision loss. An estimated 4.1 million Americans age 40 and older have diabetic retinopathy due to type 1 or type 2 diabetes.
What You Can Do
If you are a smoker, the best thing you can do for your eye health is to quit smoking. Studies show that people who quit smoking will have a 6.7% reduced risk of developing macular degeneration after one year and after five years, the risk drops by another 5%. Long-term complications from diabetes is also reduced in patients who quit smoking. Its also been shown to reduce risk of cataract formation. Doctors say people who have quit smoking for 25 years have a 20 percent lower risk of cataracts when compared with current smokers. For resources to help stop smoking, visit smokefree.gov.
If you are a smoker, or are a smoker that has quit, it is crucial to get an annual eye exam. Often, the eye conditions aggravated by smoking are not caught until permanent damage has already occurred. Regular eye exams can catch these conditions early and provide treatment. To schedule an appointment with the doctors at Piedmont Eye Center, click here.