Senior: Aging and Vision Loss

By Michael A. McMann, MD

As we get older it is normal that our vision changes. Our eyes may find it harder to read small print, take longer to adjust from light to dark and be more sensitive to glare from sunlight or unshielded light bulbs. There’s a decline in depth perception that can make it hard to judge distances, and perceiving contrasts and colors may become more difficult.

Sight provides much pleasure, but it’s also an important part of staying safe and independent. Because our eyes do so much for us, they deserve good care and attention.

Be kind to your eyes!

Don’t smoke. Studies show that tobacco smoking is an important risk factor in the early onset of an eye disease called age-related macular degeneration (AMD). This disease causes serious and permanent loss of central vision.

Reduce glare. Wear sunglasses that provide 100% UV-A and UV-B protection when you go outside during the day. They will protect you from UV rays that can harm your eyes even on a cloudy day.

Protect your eyes from accidents. Here are some ways to prevent damage to your eyes:

  • put a grease shield over frying foods
  • make sure that spray cans and bottle nozzles are pointed away from you 
  • wear safety glasses in the workshop and when opening and using chemical products like ammonia 
  • when using bungee cords, be careful of recoil

Eat your carrots. Studies show that a daily dose of the vitamins and minerals found in melons, citrus, carrots, spinach and kale may help slow the progress of age-related eye diseases such as macular degeneration, glaucoma or cataracts.

Get an eye examination. Many changes to vision happen so slowly that you may not realize you have a problem. If you are over 40 years of age, the most important thing you can do to protect your vision is to have an eye exam on a regular basis. 

Vision Changes

Here are the most common changes that come with age: 

Presbyopia is the inability to focus on close objects or small print. Reading glasses usually solve the problem. The usual age of onset is 40.

Floaters are tiny spots or specks that float across the field of vision, that are often normal. If a floater appears right in your line of vision, sometimes moving your eye around will make it shift out of your central vision. If you notice a sudden change in the number or types of spots you see, or if they come with light flashes, these may be signs of a serious problem.

Dry eyes are a common problem, especially with aging. Your eyes may feel gritty, itchy or burning. Your doctor may suggest special eye drops that act as tears. In a few serious cases, surgery may be needed to correct the problem.

Tearing (watery eyes) is another common problem. It may be because you are more sensitive to light, wind or changes in temperature. Simply protecting your eyes by shielding them or wearing sunglasses may solve the problem. The condition can also be a result of an eye infection, eye irritation or blocked tear duct, all of which can be appropriately treated. 

Vision loss

Here are the most common reasons for age-related vision loss:

Cataracts are a gradual clouding of the natural lens of the eye that prevents light from reaching the retina. If the central part of the lens is cloudy, you may not be able to read or drive unless the cataract is removed. This is one of the most successful surgeries done in medicine today.

Glaucoma is an eye problem that develops when the pressure within the eye starts destroying the nerve fibers within the retina. If not treated early, glaucoma can cause vision loss and blindness. Because most people have no early symptoms, it is very important to have regular eye exams. Treatment may include eye drops, medication or surgery. Statistically, people of Filipino and Asian descent have a higher rate of incidence of glaucoma.

Age-related macular degeneration is an eye disease that occurs when the macula (the central part of the retina responsible for sharp vision) is damaged. This damage can be the result of many factors, including aging, and causes permanent loss of central vision. Regular eye exams can detect the disease early on and laser treatments can slow down central vision loss.

Diabetic retinopathy is an eye problem linked to diabetes. Changes to blood vessels can cause the retina to become oxygen starved. Symptoms include cloudy vision and seeing spots. This condition goes through many stages and can result in blindness. If you have diabetes, have regular examinations and inform your eye specialist if you are diabetic. Treatment can slow down vision loss. Laser treatment in the early stages often proves successful.

For most seniors, normal age-related vision loss can be corrected or stopped with glasses, medication or surgery. For others, using vision aids and making changes to their homes and routines help them stay safe and independent. For those who have more serious vision loss, there are many services available to help you through this difficult period of adjustment.

DR. MICHAEL A. MCMANN is a Board-Certified Ophthalmologist and Fellowship Trained Surgeon in Cornea, External Disease & Refractive Surgery. 

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