As Celia Herdzik, of New Milford, readied her children Alexis, 2, and Chase, 4, for a day at Penfield Beach in Fairfield, she did all the expected things: slathered them in suntan lotion, made sure they didn't run off for the water without her and, of course, made sure she had their sunglasses close by.
Though neither was donning shades as the family arrived at the beach, Herdzik was gripping Alexis' glasses in hand. She said it's not typically a challenge to get her young ones to don a pair of sunglasses, and she's fairly insistent that they do so. "It protects their eyes," Herdzik said.
Not far down the beach, Diane Guimento, of Fairfield, was beginning a day of luxuriating in the sun and surf with her family -- her 12-year-old son John, her brother Marcus Cole, who was visiting from California, and Cole's two sons. Neither John nor Cole's two boys, ages 9 and 11, were wearing sunglasses. Cole said his boys "rarely, if ever" put on the eyewear, and John Guimento only wears his while playing baseball. However, both of the adults in this group had their sunglasses in place, and Diane Guimento said she seldom feels comfortable without them. "I wear mine in the shade," she quipped. "I got used to wearing them all the time, and it bothers my eyes if I don't."
Few would disagree that wearing sunglasses is beneficial. They protect your eyes from the sun's ultraviolet rays, helping reduce your chance of a variety of eye problems -- including cataract, cancer of the eye, and age-related macular degeneration, which is a leading cause of blindness. Shades also keep foreign particles like dust and glass out of your eyes, and can be helpful to those who suffer from dry eyes.
Most people know sunglasses are a weapon they can use to guard themselves and their families from a wide array of nature's assailants, but experts said too many don't put that knowledge into practice. Children, in particular, are likely to step out into the world without shielding their eyes first. A survey released in 2008 by the nonprofit vision insurance company VSP Vision Care showed that, while about 68 percent of adults surveyed wore sunglasses outdoors, less than 30 percent of their children took the same precaution. For the poll, VSP talked to roughly 4,000 people aged 18 and older.
VSP member Kimberly Stevens, an optometrist practicing in Bridgeport, said the survey results aren't surprising. "It's hard to keep any kind of glasses on kids, because they're always running around and playing," she said. Stevens said she's been engaged in five-year battle to get her own daughter, now 11, to wear sunglasses, to little avail.
Still, she said, parents should fight to get the glasses on their kids as fiercely as they battle to get a coat of sunscreen on their children before hitting the beach. "Most parents, when they go outside, slather their children with sunscreen," Stevens said. "That same sun that burns our skin is going into our eyes, enabling us to see. I don't think there's enough awareness about that. I don't think parents know how important it is to wear sunglasses."
Other doctors agreed. Kilbourn "Sandy" Gordon III, medical director of the Fairfield Urgent Care Clinic, said sun damage to the eyes can build over time -- much like damage to the skin. That's why he echoed Stevens's assertion that families need to place the same importance on eye protection as they do on skin protection. "People of all ages should be wearing sunglasses," he said.
Though kids seem less willing to slap on some shades, adults can also be too cavalier about protecting their eyes. Gordon, who is also trained in ophthalmology, said most people only wear sunglasses when the sun is shining brightly. However, the sun can damage eyes at any time of year, and its rays can penetrate haze and thin clouds. "Unfortunately, most people only wear sunglasses if the sun becomes uncomfortable," Gordon said. "But even when it's not uncomfortable, it can hurt you."
Scott Seo, an ophthalmologist with offices in Fairfield and Bridgeport, said he wasn't surprised to learn that kids are ambivalent about wearing sunglasses, but he feels that adults are equally oblivious to the benefits of regular eye protection. "I don't think enough people wear sunglasses," Seo said. "Just looking around on a sunny day, you can see that."
So what kind of glasses do the best job shielding your peepers? Nils Loewen ophthalmologist at Yale-New Haven Hospital and the director of the glaucoma section of the Yale Eye Center, recommended shades made of shatterproof polycarbonate material that block ultraviolet light and wrap around the eyes. Look for lenses marked "UV blocking," he said, or consult a knowledgeable optician.
Stevens agreed that the UV coating is imperative. As long as you have that, she said, "a cheap pair is as good as an expensive pair."
Reach Amanda Cuda at firstname.lastname@example.org or 203-330-6290. Follow at twitter.com/AmandaCuda.