Why Vision Care Is So Crucial in the Coachella Valley

Local eye experts discuss advancements in eye care and offer tips for protection against harmful UV rays.

June Allan Corrigan Health & Wellness

UV protection is critical in the desert.

Here in the desert, sunshine rarely takes a holiday. The desirable weather pattern is among the reasons so many people flock here, after all. But ask any eye care specialist, and they’ll tell you: There is more to sunshine than meets the eye. Much more.

It’s common for the average person to think that by simply throwing on a pair of shades, they’re good to go. Not so fast. “As far as sun protection for the eyes goes, we really want to focus on two things,” says Dr. Thanh-Vi Nguyen, an optometrist with Desert Eye Associates. “We want to protect the structures on the outer part of the eye but also in the back of the eye as well.” 

Ideally, this two-prong approach means wearing a pair of wraparound sunglasses with high-quality UV protective lenses. However, while most people can probably be convinced to choose sunglasses that block 99 to 100 percent of UVA and UVB radiation, the wraparound style can be a slightly harder sell. Fortunately, Nguyen offers an alternative.

A wide-brim hat will minimize light coming in around the top, sides, and bottom of a regular pair of UV-protective sunglasses. “Excessive UV exposure can cause a lot of damage to the eyes — premature cataracts, macular degeneration, even cancer,” she cautions. “Eyelid cancers are very common because of the amount of sun we’re exposed to here in the desert and the anatomy of the eye. The lower lid margin is a very common place for basal cell carcinomas to form.”

A sunglasses-and-hat combo does a pretty good job of protecting the outer eye and some of the structures behind it — the retina, the lens, and the iris — according to Nguyen. Meanwhile, a region at the very back of the eye known as the macula deserves special attention. In the macula, there are carotenoid pigment deposits called lutein and zeaxanthin that are capable of filtering out harmful free radicals like UV light. Unfortunately, these pigments deplete as we age.

The good news is we can boost their presence by eating leafy green vegetables such as spinach, kale, and broccoli. “People who are at risk or have a family history of macular degeneration should really make sure they’re getting these elements in their diet or at the very least taking a supplement,” Nguyen says. “Boosting these pigments provides an extra layer of protection.”

Should age-related macular degeneration (AMD) develop, there are potential new treatments. In February of this year, the FDA approved Syfovre, the first treatment for geographic atrophy (GA), an advanced form of dry AMD. Administered directly into the eye, the medication has been studied during monthly and bimonthly injection scenarios. “The drug doesn’t cure geographic atrophy but instead slows its progression and thus vision loss,” says Dr. Xuan Le-Nguyen, an ophthalmologist, also with Desert Eye Associates.

A couple of studies followed patients who were administered Syfovre over the course of two years. An 18 percent and 22 percent decrease in growth rate of GA occurred in the case of monthly injections and a 17 and 18 percent decrease in growth rate occurred with bimonthly injections. Le-Nguyen is excited by these results and looks forward to the FDA approving a similar medication called Zimura, hopefully later this year. “While there are potential side effects, no treatment is risk free,” she says. “I’m certainly excited for my dry AMD patients as well as my retina colleagues who will have the opportunity to give hope to these patients.”

Young and old need to protect their eyes from harmful UV rays. These days, excessive screen time is decreasing the number of hours children spend playing outdoors, but ironically, this isn’t a good thing. Experts theorize that children need outdoor time, and a lack of it is causing a host of new problems — including myopia. In 2019, the FDA approved the first contact lenses indicated to slow the progression of nearsightedness in children. In 2021, a different contact lens intended to reshape the eye came along that is meant to be worn overnight.

There are eye drops to treat myopia, and at Desert Eye Associates, they’re currently investigating the efficacies of new myopia-management spectacles that several companies are promoting. The point is to nip it in the bud early. “Severe myopia can cause other eye problems. The risk of cataracts, macular degeneration, retinal detachment all increase. These are pretty serious conditions in a young person,” Nguyen says.

“The modifiable aspect of it is just for kids to spend more time outdoors. If they weren’t staying inside staring at devices up close for so long, maybe myopia wouldn’t be as much of an issue,” she concludes. 

Of course, that time in the great outdoors needs to be spent wearing a pair of UV-protective sunglasses and a hat!