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Eye exams 101: Why you need one even if your vision is 20/20

Dan Winfield By Dan Winfield

An eye exam can tell you a lot about your general health. That’s why it’s important to get regular eye checkups even if you don’t wear glasses or contact lenses. Take, for example, Francis, who was surprised when his doctor asked him if he had a history of high blood pressure. “Being an athletic 20-something, I thought he was nuts,” Francis says. “But I went for a general checkup anyway, and he was right: I needed medication.” Through some lifestyle changes, Francis was later able to go off the medicine. But without that comprehensive eye exam, he never would have known his blood pressure was an issue.

Learn more about why eye exams are important, and what to expect at your appointment. We’ll also explain the difference between an optometrist and an ophthalmologist, and what to do if you don’t have vision insurance.

Why eye exams are important

The eye provides doctors a clear view of blood vessels, so an eye exam can tell you a lot about your general health. “Our eyes are amazing — they offer a unique view into the human body,” explains John Lahr, MD, medical director with EyeMed Vision Care, which provides administrative services for Aetna’s vision plans. “A thorough exam can spot serious problems such as diabetes, lupus, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and eye diseases like glaucoma and macular degeneration.” With regular eye exams, you may catch these problems earlier and avoid serious complications.

Learn how some habits help protect your eyes and your overall health.

How often should you go

If you don’t have any symptoms or vision problems, doctors recommend getting regular eye exams based on your age:

  • Ages 20 to 39: Every 5 years
  • Ages 40 to 54: Every 2 to 4 years
  • Ages 55 to 64: Every 1 to 3 years
  • Ages 65 and up: Every 1 to 2 years

You’ll want to have your eyes checked more often if you wear glasses or contact lenses, have a family history of eye disease, or have a chronic condition that puts you at risk for eye disease, like diabetes.

For kids under age 3, a pediatrician can look for common childhood problems like a lazy eye or crossed eyes. It’s a good idea to have your kids’ eyes checked before entering first grade. After that, if your family doesn’t have a history of vision problems, eye exams every one to two years should be enough.

Choosing the right eye doctor: ophthalmologist or optometrist

Many people are confused about what kind of eye doctor to see for an exam. An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor licensed to practice medicine and surgery who can also prescribe glasses and contact lenses.

An optometrist is a licensed professional (not a medical doctor) who mostly performs eye exams and vision tests and prescribes glasses and contact lenses. An optometrist can detect some eye problems and may prescribe medications for certain eye diseases.

Either is a good option for a comprehensive eye exam. For more complicated issues, you should make an appointment with an ophthalmologist. Your family doctor can give you a recommendation.

Check out smart tips on how to find a new doctor.

What to expect at your eye exam

In a comprehensive exam, your eye doctor will check for vision problems and eye diseases such as glaucoma and cataracts. You’ll be asked about your overall health, family medical history and any medicines you take.

To test the sharpness of your vision at a distance and up close, you’ll read letters from an eye chart. Other tests will check your 3D vision, peripheral (side) vision and color perception. Shining a small light into your eye, the doctor will observe your pupils and eye muscles. A magnifier will allow her to better view the structures of your eyeball.

Sometimes the doctor will use medicated eye drops to dilate your pupils so she can examine the blood vessels and nerve in the back of your eye. If you need your vision to be clear immediately after your appointment, you can ask the doctor not to dilate your pupils.

Finally, the doctor will test for signs of glaucoma, either by directing a puff of air at your eye or using a device that briefly touches the surface of your eye. Neither method causes any pain or lasting discomfort. 

What to do if you don't have vision insurance

General vision care is often offered as a separate insurance plan, such as the Aetna Vision Preferred plan, which has a network of over 100,000 eye doctors. If you don’t need glasses or contact lenses, you may not have a separate vision plan ― and that’s okay. A visit to the ophthalmologist may be covered by your main medical plan. Call your insurer or the eye doctor ahead of time to learn more.

When your doctor looks into your eyes, he sees your overall health. Whether or not you wear glasses or contacts, keeping up with regular eye exams can be an important part of preventive care.


For your eyes only

Aetna offers a variety of vision insurance plans and discounts.


About the author

Dan Winfield is a London-born writer and editor based in New York City. His goal is to stay in shape for his upcoming wedding.

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