A good understanding of the six most commonly diagnosed eye conditions will ensure you’re better able to assist patients.

The prevalence of dry eye syndrome increases with age

Good eyesight plays a pivotal role in patients’ wellbeing and is a significant factor in safety, retaining independence, and maintaining a good quality of life as we get older. Unfortunately, people often ignore early signs of vision problems, hoping their eyesight will miraculously clear up, which rarely happens. When you are young, it’s easy to take your eyes for granted but being aware of eye conditions is important. Early diagnosis of eye problems, followed by professional treatment, can either help preserve or improve your vision.

Six of the most commonly diagnosed eye conditions include:


Cataracts are caused by proteins clumping together through the aging process, which cause the lens to turn from clear to cloudy over time.1pg1b A cataract starts out small and, at first, has little effect on your vision, but eventually clouds the lens and makes seeing nearly impossible. Cataracts will not go away on their own but will continually worsen. Everyone is at risk, and the only treatment option is surgery. Cataracts are the most common cause of vision loss in people over age 40, and are the leading cause of blindness in the world. In fact, there are more cases of cataracts worldwide than there are of glaucoma, macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy combined, according to Prevent Blindness America (PBA).1pg1a + 2pg1b


When light passes through the cornea and the lens, it is bent – or refracted – to form the images we see. If that refraction is skewed, vision suffers. The most common reasons people wear glasses or contacts, including near-sightedness, far-sightedness and astigmatism, are caused by refractive errors.2pg3d

  • Far-sightedness, also known as hyperopia, is a condition where you can easily see things far away, but your close-up vision is blurry.3pg2b
  • Near-sightedness, or myopia, means you are able to see close-up objects, while faraway objects look blurry.3pg4c
  • Astigmatism is a common eye condition that is caused by an error in the shape of the cornea which causes distorted, fuzzy, or blurry vision.3pg1a
  • Presbyopia, a condition that causes your eye to slowly lose the ability to focus on close-up objects, is also a refractive error that is a natural part of the aging process.3pg4d


Retinopathy is the most common diabetic eye disease.2pg2c It occurs when high blood sugar levels damage blood vessels in the retina (light-sensitive layer at the back of the eye), causing swelling and scar tissue, which may lead to the retina detaching and subsequent severe, irreversible vision loss. People with diabetes should have annual eye exams including retinopathy screenings. 4pg1a


The macular is the part of the retina that allows you to see fine details. It can degenerate with age, causing everything from hazy vision to complete loss of central vision. Little can be done to improve vision once someone has age-related macular degeneration, but catching it early can slow its progress.2pg3c + 4pg1b


Glaucoma is an eye disease that damages the optic nerve, which is the nerve responsible for sending light images from the retina to the brain. In most cases, the condition develops when too much pressure builds up inside the eye.2pg2e This disease can lead to serious vision loss or blindness and rarely shows symptoms in the early stages. By the time you notice any symptoms – usually blind spots in peripheral vision – optic nerve damage is severe. This makes regular eye examinations by an eye care professional important.


This occurs when your eyes do not produce enough tears to keep your eyes moist. 2pg2f The prevalence of dry eye syndrome increases with age. Some medications and medical conditions can cause dry eyes, as can working long hours in front of a computer or in a dry environment. Symptoms may include blurred vision, contact lens discomfort, excessive tearing, eye fatigue and irritation, feeling like something is in the eye, itching, redness, and light sensitivity.2pg2f

eye care test by an optician

Early diagnosis and treatment of eye and vision problems can help prevent vision loss

Optometrist or ophthalmologist – which one is right for you?

An optometrist is an eye doctor who examines eyes for both vision and eye health problems, and corrects refractive errors by prescribing glasses or contact lenses. They can also prescribe medications to treat certain eye problems and diseases.5pg1a

An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who specialises in eye and vision care. Ophthalmologists are trained to perform eye exams, diagnose and treat disease, prescribe medications and perform eye surgery. They also write prescriptions for glasses.5pg2b

If your eyes are healthy and don’t require specialised medical or surgical treatment, the type of eye doctor you choose for a routine eye exam is a matter of personal preference.5pg2c However, if you already have a medical eye problem — such as glaucoma, macular degeneration or cataracts — it is important to seek care from an eye doctor who is highly trained and skilled in monitoring and treating your condition. In many cases, this may mean that medical or surgical eye care by a specially trained ophthalmologist is required. In such cases, your optometrist may refer you to an ophthalmologist who is a specialist in treating your condition.5pg2d

child eye care test

People with diabetes should have annual eye exams including retinopathy screenings

Get tested regularly

Regular eye examinations by an eye care professional are important. Most eye care experts recommend that you have a comprehensive eye exam every 1-2 years, depending on your age, risk factors and whether you currently wear corrective lenses.6pg1a Eye and vision examinations are an important part of preventive healthcare as many eye problems have no obvious signs or symptoms.

Early diagnosis and treatment of eye and vision problems can help prevent vision loss. If you are at risk for eye problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure or a family history of eye disease, you may need more frequent exams.6pg2b It’s a good idea to make sure that your medical aid scheme covers eye care, including tests, glasses, contacts, and surgery, especially as you age.

A comprehensive eye exam should include: 7pg1b 

  • A review of your personal and family health history and any history of eye problems
  • Evaluation of your distance and near vision with an eye chart
  • Evaluation for the presence of refractive errors, such as near-sightedness, far-sightedness, astigmatism and presbyopia. These are types of optical imperfections that prevent the eye from properly focusing light.
  • Evaluation of your eyes’ ability to work together as a team
  • An eye pressure test and examination of the optic nerve to rule out glaucoma
  • Examination of the interior of your eyes to rule out other eye problems, such as cataracts and macular degeneration

5 questions to ask your eye care professional 8pg1a

  • Can you explain the tests I will be undergoing during today’s examination?
  • What is the cause of my vision loss or poor vision (i.e. near-sightedness, far-sightedness, astigmatism, etc.)?
  • What is my visual acuity?
  • How is my peripheral or side vision?
  • Based on my age, what symptoms should I watch out for in order to preserve healthy vision?

Eye health stats

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that globally, 285 million people are visually impaired, of whom 39 million are blind. According to WHO data for 2010, 80% of visual impairment including blindness is avoidable
  • The two main causes of visual impairment in the world are uncorrected refractive errors (42%) and cataracts (33%). Cost-effective interventions to reduce the burden of both conditions exist in all countries.
  • Worldwide, about 66 million people are affected by glaucoma, with 10% of them becoming blind as a result. In SA, it is estimated that about 200 000 people are affected.
  • According to the WHO, age-related macular degeneration accounts for 7.1% of global blindness, making it the 4th biggest cause of blindness worldwide.
  • In SA, cataracts are the leading cause of blindness, responsible for about 50% of the prevalence of blindness, and identified as a national health priority.
  • Dry eyes are more common in pregnant women, postmenopausal women, and older individuals. More than 60% of people over the age of 65 are affected to some extent.