Television chef Rosemary Shrager is the kind of person who usually springs out of bed as soon as she wakes up.
But until recently this has been a struggle — though not for lack of energy and enthusiasm. As the veteran of popular programmes such as Ladette To Lady and I’m A Celebrity says: ‘I might be 70, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to stop.’
The problem was her overhanging upper eyelids, which were preventing her from getting straight on with her day.
‘It felt like the upper lids were being weighed down over my eyes,’ says Rosemary, who has two grown-up children. ‘Each morning, without fail, I’d wake up and literally be unable to open my eyes.
Television chef Rosemary Shrager is the kind of person who usually springs out of bed as soon as she wakes up. But until recently this has been a struggle — though not for lack of energy and enthusiasm
‘It was not only quite scary — you take it for granted that you wake up and you can see — but pretty painful, too.’
In fact, for the past year or two, the only way Rosemary could open her eyes was to physically prise them apart with her fingers.
‘After rubbing and prising the eyelids open with my fingers for a good few minutes, the drooping would ease throughout the day,’ says Rosemary, who lives in Sussex.
‘It sounds mad that something as light as an eyelid could cause such trouble.’
The sagging around her eyelids that started to bother her five years ago caused other problems, too, making her eyes weep.
This meant doing her live Facebook Cookalongs during the pandemic (to help families cook) was increasingly challenging, as she had to keep wiping her eyes.
That’s why earlier this year, Rosemary decided to take the plunge and have her lids surgically lifted.
The procedure is not without risk — some people find they can’t close their eyes properly afterwards — but she decided the risks were worth it.
‘I just felt I couldn’t go on like this,’ she says. ‘It was demoralising and uncomfortable.’
Drooping eyelids are a common problem. They are caused by a weakening of muscle (known as ptosis) or excess skin, fat or muscle in the eyelid area (known as dermatochalasis).
As the veteran of popular programmes such as Ladette To Lady and I’m A Celebrity says: ‘I might be 70, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to stop.’ The problem was her overhanging upper eyelids, which were preventing her from getting straight on with her day
Rosemary had both.
A study in England published in the journal Age and Ageing in 1995 found that 11 per cent of the over-50s had some degree of ptosis. Children can have it too but the incidence increases with age.
That’s because the levator muscle, which is responsible for lifting the eyelid, weakens with age, explains Raj Das-Bhaumik, a consultant oculoplastic surgeon at Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust in London.
‘But genetics can also cause this, as some people may be born with weakened muscles.’
Other risk factors include smoking, sun exposure and excess drinking — ‘All of which can damage skin cells and cause the skin to sag prematurely,’ adds Mr Das-Bhaumik.
Drooping eyelids are also more common in those who wear contact lenses, says Elizabeth Hawkes, an oculoplastic and ophthalmic surgeon at the Cadogan Clinic in London.
‘I found myself having to hold my eyes wide open — I just felt so self-conscious,’ says Rosemary
‘Every time you take a lens out, you might be stretching the skin around the eyelid, and this can cause the muscles to droop.’
While for some people drooping eyelids are purely a cosmetic issue, it can sometimes lead to medical complications, says Mr Das-Bhaumik.
‘Drooping lids can cause eyelashes to turn inwards, irritating or scratching the surface of the eye and possibly leading to infection and, in rare cases, ulcers — which can threaten sight.’ They can also restrict vision and may make driving dangerous.
It can feel like there’s a ‘curtain’ on the upper outer edges of the eyes so those affected may need to turn their head more.
‘It would be almost like wearing blinkers,’ says Mr Das-Bhaumik.
Another problem related to drooping eyelids is eyes weeping, as in Rosemary’s case.
As Saj Ataullah, a consultant ophthalmic, oculoplastic and orbital surgeon at the Manchester Royal Eye Hospital, explains: ‘One possible reason for this could be that if the skin folds over the outer corner of the eye, this can create a wick-like effect and draw tears out of the outer corner.’
Drooping eyelids can even trigger headaches, as those affected may constantly raise their eyebrows and forehead to stop the lids drooping, thereby causing muscle tension in the forehead.
The most common treatment is an upper blepharoplasty carried out under local anaesthetic. Here, folds of loose skin, muscle and fat are cut away from the upper eyelid.
Around 2,500 such operations were performed last year on the NHS. It’s offered only if the normal field of vision is being obscured or if the patient is suffering serious physical discomfort as well as vision problems.
Mr Ataullah argues that the procedure should be more widely available on the NHS as ‘a lot of patients suffer with compromised vision and symptoms arising from this — though it is important to distinguish between what is cosmetic and what is functional.
Rosemary paid to have the procedure done privately as she wanted to get the problem corrected quickly once she had made up her mind to have treatment.
‘I found myself having to hold my eyes wide open — I just felt so self-conscious,’ says Rosemary.
‘It was only when I mentioned it to a friend in February that I realised that something could be done surgically.’
She admits that ‘the idea of messing with my eye gave me the shivers. But I told myself that I just had to be brave.’
Everyday activities that boost your happiness hormones. This week: Have a sauna
The heat of a sauna has been shown to trigger the release of endorphins — chemicals that reduce pain and make us feel good.
‘The stress of heat activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which releases a number of hormones including beta-endorphins,’ says Ilpo Huhtaniemi, an endocrinologist and Professor Emeritus at Imperial College, London.
Researchers at Colorado University in the U.S. have also found that a set of neurons (nerve cells) in the brain release serotonin, another hormone that signals happiness, in response to heat.
Serotonin helps to cool the body and has the knock-on effect of raising mood.
So how long should you stay in a sauna to benefit?
If you are otherwise healthy (anyone with high blood pressure, heart failure or who is pregnant is advised to avoid saunas), Professor Huhtaniemi suggests 30 to 40 minutes, but ‘divided into short stays of 5 to 10 minutes with cooling in between’.
The procedure is performed using local anaesthetic injected under the eyelid. Incisions are then made in the creases of the upper lids and excess tissue removed (in Rosemary’s case the surgeon cut away 2.8 mm of skin, which is at the upper end for this procedure).
If the remaining muscle is slack, it is repaired and tightened with tiny, absorbable stitches.
‘It sounds a bit gruesome when you explain what happened — but actually, during the procedure, I felt incredibly comfortable,’ says Rosemary.
‘The only sore part was the needle for the anaesthetic.’
After the 45-minute procedure, she was given a mirror.
‘I’m not often speechless,’ she says, ‘but I couldn’t believe it. I could see my eyes were open — well, they were half open because of the stitches and swelling.
‘I was ecstatic.’
Her enthusiasm waned somewhat, though, when she woke up the next day looking like she’d ‘been in a fight’.
‘I was so bruised and sore. So much so that I couldn’t open my eyes properly for a day or so.
‘I also had throbbing pain, so I took paracetamol. I had been warned, of course, but even so I thought, “Oh dear, what have I done here?” ’
After six days, the bruising had gone down. Three months on and Rosemary is thrilled with the results — though it will be around six months until her eyes are fully opened owing to the scars having to mature and soften.
‘I’m absolutely over the moon,’ she says. ‘The biggest improvement is when waking up in the morning. My eyes now open wider and the feeling of not having heavy eyes is the biggest relief.
‘My eyes don’t weep and my whole face seems alive.’
For those considering a similar procedure, Mr Das-Bhaumik urges caution.
‘The big issue with blepharoplasty is overdoing it. It’s important that the surgeon is a specialist who achieves a very natural functional outcome.
‘If you take away too much skin, you can be left with eyes that don’t close properly. There are also risks of infection, bleeding, bruising and scarring. It also should not be done if you have very dry eyes: that needs to be treated first.’
Nor is the operation, which costs upwards of £2,500 privately, always a permanent solution as there can be creep back of drooping skin — though this tends to be after about 15 to 20 years.
At the moment, Rosemary is very happy. ‘I really do see the world differently now,’ she says.
‘It has been a revelation.’