Aging and Vision Care: The Eyes Have It
How can you protect your vision?
Remember when you could sit down to read a newspaper without reaching for your glasses? You may never have those young eyes again, but that doesn't mean you're doomed to a life of poor vision. In fact, many people have good eyesight well into their eighties and beyond. While some changes are inevitable, with a few simple steps you can ensure the best vision possible for your circumstances.
- See an optometrist or ophthalmologist every one to two years under normal circumstances, or once a year if you have diabetes or a family history of eye diseases. Most serious eye diseases are easily treated if they're caught in time. An ophthalmologist can also check your eyesight and, if needed, change the prescription on your glasses.
- Contact an ophthalmologist immediately if you experience a sudden loss of eyesight, pain in the eye, double vision, unusual fluids seeping from the eye, or extreme redness or swelling of the eye or eyelid -- particularly if you have diabetes or a family history of eye diseases.
- Wear sunglasses with ultraviolet protection and a wide-brimmed hat when you venture into the sun. Its rays can damage eye tissue and increase your risk of developing cataracts.
- Make sure your diet includes sufficient vitamins and minerals. To maintain good eyesight, you need to take in the proper amounts of B vitamins; the antioxidants A, C, and E; and the mineral zinc. Fresh fruits and vegetables, especially yellow and yellow-orange foods such as carrots and sweet potatoes, are good sources of these nutrients. Many experts also believe that seniors should take a daily multivitamin as an added source of nutrients.
What eye diseases commonly afflict seniors?
According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, 43 million Americans will suffer from age-related eye diseases by the year 2020. Here are brief descriptions of diseases that commonly rob seniors of their sight, as well as information on treating and preventing them.
- Cataracts. A cataract is a gradual clouding of your eye's lens, marked by blurred vision, impaired night vision, and halos around lights. If these problems start interfering with your life, discuss cataract surgery with your opthalmologist. Cataracts can cause blindness if left untreated, but fortunately, the disease rarely progresses that far: Surgery to remove cataracts is so common and so effective that few people suffer permanent damage nowadays. Cataracts are most common in people over 60, and the risks are higher for people with diabetes and those who take corticosteroids, diuretics, and heavy tranquilizers. Excess exposure to sun is also a risk factor, so cover up when you go outside. And if you smoke, quit.
- Glaucoma. This occurs when fluids that normally flow in and out of the eye drain improperly, increasing the pressure inside the eye and eventually damaging the optic nerve. The disease is a major cause of blindness in the United States -- African Americans are at increased risk -- but early treatment can stop its progression. Unfortunately, most people don't notice any symptoms until permanent damage has occurred. That's why regular trips to your ophthalmologist are crucial, especially if someone in your immediate family has the disease, or if you have diabetes or are over age 60. It can also develop at a much earlier age, so have your eyes tested every one to two years starting around age 40. If glaucoma is caught in time, eye drops, medication, or surgery can almost always spare your vision.
- Macular degeneration. This disease of the retina is the leading cause of blindness in people over 65. It results when the macula, the part of the retina responsible for sharp vision, begins to deteriorate. Macular degeneration comes in two forms, dry and wet. The dry form, in which the retina has simply worn thin with age, is untreatable, but it is usually slow to progress and rarely causes severe vision loss. Some research suggests that vitamins and minerals may slow its development.
The wet form of the disease occurs when abnormal blood vessels form beneath the retina. It poses a much more serious threat to your eyesight, but laser surgery can help some patients avoid further vision loss. To get the earliest possible treatment, see an ophthalmologist promptly if your vision becomes fuzzy or blurry, if straight lines look wavy, or if blank or dark spots show up in the center of your vision.
- Diabetic retinopathy. Diabetes can damage the blood vessels that feed the retina, putting people with the disease at high risk for blindness. Retinal damage is particularly common in people who have had diabetes for at least 10 years, and it's nearly universal in those who have had the disorder for 30 years or more. Diabetic retinopathy causes blurred or fluctuating vision, and it can worsen rapidly. When caught in time, the disease can be treated with laser surgery or other operations. If you've had diabetes for several years, annual checkups with an ophthalmologist are absolutely essential. Carefully controlling both your blood sugar and your blood pressure will also go a long way toward preventing vision loss.
What other eye conditions are associated with aging?
These common problems won't seriously impair your vision, but can definitely be a nuisance.
- Presbyopia. This is the fancy term for the nearly inevitable decline in a person's ability to read small print or focus on anything held close to the eyes. People begin to notice the onset of presbyopia in their early to mid-forties when the lens of the eye begins to lose flexibility. If you get tired of holding books at arm's length, you can fix the problem with a pair of reading glasses.
- Floaters. Most often these spots that drift across your field of vision are no cause for alarm. Some people are born with floaters, but they can also result when the fluid in your eye deteriorates through age, injury, or disease. However, you should call an eye doctor if the floaters suddenly become more common, or are accompanied by flashes of light. These may be symptoms of a detached retina.
- Dry eyes. If your tear glands dry up, your eyes can burn and itch and you may even lose some vision. A humidifier in your house or special eye drops can help restore the moisture, although the most severe cases will require surgery.
- Tearing. Eyes that are highly sensitive to sunlight, wind, or temperature changes often fill up with tears. You can prevent the problem with sunglasses or anything else that shields your eyes from the elements. In some cases, tearing can signal an eye infection or a blocked tear duct. See an ophthalmologist if the problem persists.
Certain medications can also affect your vision and have side effects such as blurred vision, dry eyes, and light sensitivity. Most effects are temporary and will stop when you quit taking the medicine, but it's important to keep your eye doctor up to date on all the drugs and supplements that you're using.
What can I do if my vision is fading?
If your vision has declined slightly, simply adding more light to your house may bring life back to normal. For activities like reading and sewing, add lamps that are brighter than overall room lighting. Shades, blinds, and drapes can reduce indoor glare, and an anti-reflective coating on your eyeglass lenses can be helpful, too.
Even with more severe vision loss, you may be able to continue reading and performing other tasks with the aid of special telescopic glasses, magnifying glasses, and electronic reading devices. Talk to your eye doctor about the devices that are best for you.
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