By Zack Steele
Cigarette smoke is extremely toxic, containing as many as 4,000 active compounds, including tar, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, and heavy metals.
Its effects on the lungs and heart have been well established by medical researchers and are well known. Not as well known are the detrimental effects that smoking can have on your vision. Smoking has been directly linked to two of the leading causes of vision loss — cataracts and macular degeneration. In fact, researchers believe smoking also causes or contributes to a number of other eye health problems.
Research has found that smokers have double the risk of developing cataracts compared with non-smokers. This risk is triple for heavy smokers. In fact, doctors have discovered a specific relationship between cataracts and the amount that you smoke — the more you smoke, the more chance you have of developing cataracts.
Cataracts occur when the eye’s naturally clear lens grows cloudy over time. This age-related condition causes blurry vision, faded colors and increased sensitivity to glare. For some people, having cataracts is like trying to see through a waterfall.
Most eye care professionals believe 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.
Smoking also increases a person’s risk of developing macular degeneration. Studies have found that smokers face a risk of developing macular degeneration that is two to four times greater than that of people who have never smoked. As with cataracts, the risk increases the more a person has smoked. Researchers have also found an increased risk of macular degeneration in people who don’t smoke but are frequently exposed to environmental cigarette smoke.
Macular degeneration involves the deterioration of the macula, the central part of the retina that allows us to perceive fine details. As the macula wears out, people experience blurriness, distortions or blind spots in their central vision.
Most experts believe that smoking promotes macular degeneration by interfering with blood flow to the retina. Smoking might also increase the deleterious effects of oxidation on the cells of the macula.
Studies also have linked cigarette smoking to eye problems such as diabetic retinopathy and dry eye.
Dr. Zack Steele is a 2003 graduate of the UAB School of Optometry. His practice, Trussville Vision Care, is located on Chalkville Mountain Road in downtown Trussville.