Having to squint to read small print is considered a normal progression of our eyesight through middle age, and beyond, as our eyes undergo changes. There are, however, a number diseases and conditions that can affect our vision as we age. Cataracts, for example, are common and readily corrected with surgery. But other eye conditions have a greater potential to impact our quality of life, include glaucoma, macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy.
With an estimated 108.7 million Americans now age 50 and older, age-related vision change is affecting more of us than ever before. And it’s happening at a time when older Americans are more active than they’ve ever been.
Consider the numbers:
- Some 40 percent of Baby Boomers still work full or part time jobs, or are seeking one, at age 65.
- An estimated 48.2 million drivers in the U.S., roughly one in five, are 65 or older.
- Just over half of the small businesses in the U.S. are owned and operated by individuals between the ages of 50 and 88.
The good news is better healthcare, preventive strategies and advances in technology can help us manage age-related vision changes and stay active and engaged even as our vision declines. The earlier these problems are detected and treated, the better your chances of maintaining good vision. Here are a few more details about common age-related eye conditions and diseases from the National Eye Institute (NEI):
What to Watch For
Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD): AMD gradually destroys sharp, central vision. Central vision is needed for seeing objects clearly and for common daily tasks such as reading and driving.
Cataract: A cataract is a clouding of the lens in the eye. Vision with cataracts can appear cloudy or blurry, colors may seem faded and you may notice a lot of glare.
Diabetic Eye Disease: A complication of diabetes, diabetic eye disease is a leading cause of blindness. The most common form is diabetic retinopathy which occurs when diabetes damages the tiny blood vessels inside the retina.
Glaucoma: Glaucoma is a group of diseases that can damage the eye’s optic nerve and result in vision loss and blindness. It is usually associated with high pressure in the eye and affects side or peripheral vision.
Dry Eye: Dry eye occurs when the eye does not produce tears properly, or when the tears are not of the correct consistency and evaporate too quickly. Dry eye can make it more difficult to perform some activities, such as using a computer or reading for an extended period of time.
Low Vision: Low vision means that even with regular glasses, contact lenses, medicine or surgery, people find everyday tasks difficult to do. Reading the mail, shopping, cooking, watching TV and writing can seem challenging.
Make Screening a Routine
Regular eye exams can help you stay on top of changes in your vision and monitor for eye disease. They are also a good way to be sure you have the right prescription if you wear glasses. Not having the right prescription can contribute to eye strain and fatigue. While not specifically an age-related problem, eye strain and fatigue can negatively affect vision. The National Eye Institute recommends annual eye exams for everyone over 50, as eye diseases often have few symptoms.
And because eye health and physical health go hand-in-hand, an annual physical is important too. Managing and monitoring for diabetes, for example, can help stave off vision loss associated with that disease. As part of an annual exam, doctors routinely use an ophthalmoscope to check for eye diseases and check eye function, such as peripheral vision.
Declining vision can also be the result of systemic health problems like high blood pressure and diabetes, which may be diagnosed or become more problematic as we age. For that reason, it’s a important to keep your eye doctor or family physician informed about health conditions and the use of any medications and nutritional supplements, as well as your exercise, eating, sleeping, and lifestyle choices. The earlier these problems are detected and treated, the better. your chances of maintaining good vision.
Protect and Preserve
Though we can’t stop the aging process, there’s is a lot we can do to maintain our vision as we get older. To help keep your eyes as healthy as possible for as long as possible, these simple steps are easily added to your daily routine:
Sunglasses: Long hours in the sun without eye protection can contribute to cataracts and growths on the eye, including cancer, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Proper sunglasses protect against sun-related damage. Wear them anytime you are outdoors, particularly during the summer, at the beach or while boating, and when using medications that cause light sensitivity. The best sunglasses offer 100 percent UV absorption.
Shut-eye: Our eyes clean and lubricate themselves with tears when we blink. Because they are closed during sleep, they enjoy continuous lubrication. In this way, eyes can clear out irritants such as dust, allergens or smoke that may have accumulated during the day. And eye health and sleep go hand-in-hand. While it’s important that we protect our eyes from over-exposure to UV light, our eyes also need exposure to natural light every day to help regulate our biological clocks and maintain normal sleep-wake cycles — the cycles that help ensure we get enough quality sleep, which helps our body, and our eyes, rejuvenate.
Screen time: Computer work gets harder as we age due to presbyopia, which causes the lenses in our eyes to become less flexible. Staring at screens can cause discomfort because our eyes have to focus and refocus all the time. They move back and forth as you read. You may have to look down at papers then back up to type. Your eyes react to changing images on the screen so your brain can process what you’re seeing. Unlike a book or piece of paper, the screen adds contrast, flicker, and glare which results in discomfort. To reduce eyestrain, the NEI recommends the 20-20-20 rule to reduce eyestrain: Every 20 minutes, look away, about 20 feet in front of you, for 20 seconds.
Eating Right: As children, we learn that carrots are good for your eyes. But eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, particularly dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale or collard greens, is important for keeping your eyes healthy, too, according to the National Eye Institute. A recent study found that oxidation and inflammation may contribute to an assortment of age-related eye diseases, so eating these antioxidant-rich foods combats that. Research has also shown there are eye health benefits from eating fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, tuna and halibut.
No Smoking: Smoking harms nearly every organ in your body, including your eyes. People who smoke double their chances of developing macular degeneration and are two to three times more likely to develop cataracts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Exercise: Good blood circulation and oxygen intake is essential to eye health, both of which are stimulated by regular exercise. Exercise also helps manage weight, which reduces the risk of diabetes and diabetic retinopathy, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Several studies over the last 10 years have found connections between regular exercise and a reduced risk for other common eye ailments such as cataracts, wet age-related macular degeneration and glaucoma, according to experts at the Cleveland Clinic.
Vision problems and eye disease can also stem from high blood pressure and high cholesterol. A healthy diet and regular exercise are two of the most important steps you can take to lower both.
Good Contact Lens Care: As we age, our eyes tend to get dryer, making it more difficult to wear contact lenses. Silicone hydrogel lenses have expanded options for older adults. Contact lenses are also being used to correct presbyopia, the age-related inability to see clearly at near distances. If you wear contact lenses, hand washing is the most important step in keeping your contact lenses and eyes healthy, says Christine Sindt, an optometrist and director of the Contact Lens Service at the University of Iowa. Think about all the germy things you touch throughout the day – countertops, door handles, keyboards. Those microbes will transfer from your fingers to your contact lens and then to your eye. This can cause huge problems for your eyes, like nasty infections that may damage your sight. Disinfect contacts as instructed and replace them as appropriate, advises the NEI.
Dealing with Low Vision and Vision Loss
For those whose vision declines beyond normal, age-related changes, there is hope. Low-vision rehabilitative services can help keep you active and independent. These services provide a range of techniques that allow you to perform daily tasks with your available vision.
An optometrist can help you plan a rehabilitation program that will allow you to live as independently as possible within the limitations of your condition. A variety of assistive devices are available for individuals with low vision. Here are a few of the more common ones, according to the American Optometric Association:
Spectacle-mounted magnifiers. Magnifying lenses are mounted to glasses or on a special headband. This frees up both hands to complete a close-up task, such as writing a letter.
Handheld or spectacle-mounted telescopes. These miniature telescopes help people see longer distances, such as across the room to watch television. They can be modified for close-up tasks, such as reading.
Handheld and stand magnifiers. These are convenient for short-term reading tasks, such as viewing price tags, labels and instrument dials. Both types can include lights.
Video magnification. Tabletop or head-mounted systems enlarge reading material on a video display. Some systems can be used for distance viewing. They are portable, and some can be used with a computer or monitor. Users can customize image brightness, image size, contrast, foreground/background color and illumination.
Other products include talking wristwatches; self-threading needles; large-type books, magazines, and newspapers; and books on tape. For computers, there are special keyboards, monitor magnifiers, speech recognition programs and other aids to make them more “low vision” friendly.
As we get older, our vision changes along with the rest of our bodies. Poor vision, however, does not have to be a part of the process. Knowing what to expect and employing the many strategies available to keep our eyes healthy for as long as possible can help keep the world and our lives in focus. Here’s looking at you, kid.
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