Surveys show that out of the five senses, Americans worry the most about losing their vision as they age. Here’s the scoop on how vision changes in later life and what you can do about it.
By Angela Whitaker
Aging Eyes = Higher Risk
So you’re getting older and you can’t read the clock anymore. Or maybe the fine print is getting a little blurry. Aren’t these vision changes just a normal part of aging? Maybe, but maybe not. While it’s true that some vision changes are a normal part of aging, there are many that aren’t and are in fact signs of disease. That’s why the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends all adults begin making regular visits to an optometrist or ophthalmologist starting at age 40 – even those with no obvious signs or risk factors.
Dr. Richard Breazeale, an ophthalmologist with Southeastern Retina Associates, says that in addition to regular screenings, certain lifestyle habits can limit your risk factors for disease and set you up for eye health later in life. “Some of the most important things patients can do to preserve their eyesight are to protect their eyes from ultraviolet light and to quit smoking and/or drinking heavily,” he says. “I also encourage patients to think about getting antioxidants in their diets. Green leafy vegetables like kale contain lutein and zeaxanthin, which are concentrated by the retina and are believed to decrease your risk of losing vision to conditions like age-related macular degeneration.”
In Your 40s
If you’re holding this article away from your face or even at arm’s length to read the fine print, you’re likely experiencing presbyopia, an age-related eye condition that makes focusing up close difficult. While annoying, presbyopia is normal and happens to nearly everyone in their late 30s or early 40s as the eye’s lens becomes more rigid.
If you’re having difficulty seeing up close, schedule a comprehensive eye exam with an optometrist or ophthalmologist for a diagnosis and a corrective prescription. The possibilities for correcting presbyopia range from reading glasses to bifocals to progressive lenses to multifocal contact lenses.
Even if you aren’t having a problem with your eyesight, the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends a baseline comprehensive eye exam around the age of 40, as this is when early signs of disease and changes in eyesight are often first detected. If you have a family history of eye disease or are at a higher risk due to diabetes or high blood pressure, then you should obtain an eye exam even earlier. Your eye doctor will recommend follow-up exam intervals based on the results of this first consultation.
In Your 50s, 60s & Beyond
As you move into your 50s, your presbyopia may worsen due to the continued hardening of your lenses. When this happens, you will likely need a new corrective prescription. As people enter into their 50s and 60s they may also notice that their eyes become dryer. Called “dry eye syndrome,” this occurs because our eyes make fewer tears as we grow older, and it is especially common in women after menopause. Artificial tears can help keep the eyes lubricated and are available without a prescription. However, some cases are caused by ongoing inflammation and may require a different line of treatment. “In these cases, prescription eyedrops can be helpful,” says Dr. Breazeale. “Another option involves plugging the drainage canals leading into the nose from the inside corner of the eyelids.”
As you enter your 60s, your risk for four major age-related eye diseases – glaucoma, cataracts, age-related macular degeneration (AMD), and diabetic retinopathy – continues to increase. Many of these diseases have no early symptoms, so it’s important to continue seeing your eye doctor every one to two years for early detection and treatment to stop the progression of the disease and prevent permanent vision loss. Beginning at age 65, you should have a complete eye exam every year or more frequently if you have diabetes or high blood pressure.
Living an Eye-Friendly Lifestyle We know exercise, a good diet, and adequate sleep are key to good health, but did you know that they can also protect your eyes? Here are five lifestyle measures that can keep eyesight sharp.
Eat a feast for the eyes. Some of the best foods for your eyes are also bright and beautiful. To get your eyes the vitamins and minerals you need, reach for dark, leafy greens (like spinach, kale, etc.), carrots, citrus, berries, peppers, and more.
Quit smoking. It’s not just bad for your lungs. Smoking doubles your risk of diabetes, which leads to diabetic retinopathy; triples your risk of cataracts; and makes you twice as likely to suffer from dry eye.
Wear those shades. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun can cause lead to cumulative damage to your eyes over time. So unless you want to increase your risk of cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, and even cancer of the eye and eyelids, put on those shades!
Keep off the pounds. Being overweight doesn’t hurt your eyes directly, but it’s linked to a host of chronic diseases that will, like cataracts, glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy.
Get some shut-eye. Sleep is how your eyes can replenish themselves in order to work at their full potential. Not getting your zzzs can lead to twitching/spasms, popped blood vessels, and dry eye.
Do you know the warning signs of eye disease? The four most common age-related eye diseases and their symptoms are described below. Regardless of your age, always consult an optometrist or ophthalmologist immediately if you notice any eye problems or changes in your vision.
Cataracts. Cataracts are a cloud-ing of the eye’s lens on the front of the eye. Symptoms include blurry or dim vision with “halos” around lights at night and a decreased ability to see bright colors. If diagnosed with a cataract, surgery to replace the damaged lens with an artificial one will restore eyesight.
Glaucoma. Glaucoma results from high fluid pressure levels in the eye. It damages the eye’s optic nerve and can cause blindness. There are no symptoms in the early stages, but later symptoms include a loss of peripheral or side vision. “Much like blood pressure is the ‘silent killer’ when it comes to heart disease, glaucoma is the silent killer of the optic nerve,” says Dr. Breazeale. “But if it’s detected early, the condition is very treatable.”
Diabetic Retinopathy. This is the most common diabetic eye disease, and it’s caused when high blood sugar levels damage blood vessels in the eye’s retina. There are no early symptoms, but later symptoms include spots or strings in vision (floaters) as well as blurred vision.
Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD). AMD is a deterioration of the eye’s macula. Symptoms include a loss of central vision including the presence of dark areas as well as difficulty distinguishing fine details. AMD is the No. 1 cause of blindness in the U.S. but can be treated with an early diagnosis.
Learn more! Exercise, a good diet, adequate sleep, and management of any health conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure benefit the whole body including your eyes. For more information on how to keep your eyes young at any age, visit the American Academy of Ophthalmology or American Optometric Asso-
ciation websites at geteyesmart.org or aoa.org.