Dr. Mary Elizabeth Hartnett on Women's Eye Health

April is Women’s Eye Health and Safety Month, named to raise awareness to the vision loss disparity between men and women

Dr. Mary Elizabeth Hartnett, MD, is the Michael F. Marmor, M.D. Professor in Retinal Science and Diseases and is a Professor of Ophthalmology at Stanford University. She is also the director of Women's Eye Health, a website produced to provide the knowledge women need to understand their eye health risks and more. 

IT SEEMS THERE is a day or a month to celebrate or raise awareness for everything, from pets to cleaning your desk, and anything in between. April, however, marks a little-known, but important month in ophthalmology: Women's Eye Health and Safety Month.

A majority of people living with blindness or vision problems are women, according to the National Eye Institute . Women struggle more often with a number of diseases and other eye issues, including age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, dry eye, and thyroid eye disease, the American Academy of Ophthalmology reports.

Those vision issues have not only interpersonal impacts, as people and their families adjust their lives (sometimes drastically) to accommodate vision changes, but also fiscal implications. As of 2013, eye disorders and vision loss come with an economic burden of $139 billion, data released by nonprofit Prevent Blindness shows.

Though physicians and scientists have known for years that a disparity exists between men and women when it comes to vision loss and eye health, understanding why, and how to improve those numbers, is still a challenge.

Targeting more ophthalmic care and education toward women can put a big dent in the problem, some experts say, because not only do women make up a large portion of the population struggling with eye conditions, but by and large, they tend to also be caregivers, doctor appointment-makers and the first line of assessment when someone gets injured in the home.

“As common caregivers for men, women and children, women are sometimes the ones who spread the word about eye health,” says Mary Elizabeth Hartnett, MD, the Michael F. Marmor, M.D. Professor in Retinal Science and Diseases and is a Professor of Ophthalmology at Stanford University. 

Dr. Hartnett is also the director of Women's Eye Health, a website produced with the National Eye Health Education Program and Women in Ophthalmology to provide the knowledge women need to understand their eye health risks, protect their vision, improve their eyesight, and empower their families . She is working to make the site accessible for anyone with or without an education in ophthalmology, while leaning on cutting-edge and evidence-based research.

In that spirit, Dr. Hartnett sat down last month to share some of her knowledge about women's eye health and how to improve vision outcomes.

Some questions and answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity. Additional information in parenthesis was added by the author.  

One critical health moment in women's lives is during pregnancy. How can pregnancy impact eye health and vision?

One major health issue is diabetes and a goal is to have good glycemic control throughout your life. A woman may not always know when they become pregnant, and pregnancy can lead to a worsening of diabetic retinopathy and diabetic macular edema (fluid accumulation in the eye), particularly if glycemia (blood glucose) is not controlled.

Monitoring blood pressure during pregnancy is also important and to have good prenatal care, in general.

What are some key things that women can do during pregnancy to be proactive and protect their eyes?

Once someone knows they're pregnant, then in the first trimester see an eye physician—either a retina specialist, or general ophthalmologist. If retinopathy (damage to blood vessels in the back of the eye) is noted, exams may need to be more frequent than every trimester.  

As a woman and an ophthalmologist, what is something that you would never do because of its effects on eye health?

There are a number of unsafe practices that we have learned about – it isn’t safe to have a tattoo on the sclera (the white, outside coating of the eye). It is also always good to check with your specialists about new exploratory treatments before having them. 

Smoking can increase the chance of cataracts and age-related macular degeneration and also affects the vasculature of the body and retina. The retinal vessels are smaller than other parts of the body and can become blocked, leading to vision loss.

It is important to protect your eyes in any high-risk activity like hammering or playing sports. Wear appropriate protective eyewear before those activities.

What is something you would love to see in the medical field that would help raise awareness or address eye health for women?

I think it comes down to increasing education. People may not think about eye health from a primary care perspective, but it’s an important component of health.


Janice Turi is the web and communications specialist for the Byers Eye Institute at Stanford. Contact her at jturi@stanford.edu.