Excerpts from January 2014 Senior Spirit newsletter
Just as the rest of our body starts to change as we age, so do our eyes. By the age of 65, approximately one person in three has some form of vision-reducing eye disease. As we get older, our pupils get smaller, making them less responsive to variations in light, and our eyes become less flexible, making it harder to focus on near objects. The lens of the eye gradually yellows with age, affecting our color perception.
Scientists are discovering other effects of aging eyes. Recent research shows that the gradual yellowing of the lens and the narrowing of the pupil disturb the body’s circadian rhythm, contributing to a range of health problems (“Aging of Eyes Is Blamed for Range of Health Woes,” (New York Times). As the eyes age, less sunlight gets through the lens to reach key cells in the retina that regulate the body’s circadian rhythm. This internal clock relies on light to function properly, and studies have found that people whose circadian rhythms are out of sync are at greater risk for health issues, including insomnia, heart disease, cancer, memory loss, slower reaction time and even depression.
We can easily remedy some aging eye issues, such as low vision, with solutions as simple as eyeglasses or contacts. Other ailments can be more serious, leading to blindness if not treated. Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the most common cause of severe visual impairment. Other vision-threatening diseases are glaucoma, cataracts and diabetic retinopathy.
The good news is that there are various ways to treat eye problems, from eating certain foods to getting surgery. One of the best preventive measures is to get regular eye exams, as many eye diseases don’t have early warning signs or symptoms that you may notice, but an eye doctor can detect.
Eye Diseases to Take Seriously
Certain eye disease can cause severe vision loss and, if not treated, blindness.
Age-related macular degeneration: AMD causes damage to the macula, a small spot near the center of the retina and the part of the eye needed for sharp, central vision. The macula lets us see objects that are straight ahead. As AMD progresses, a common symptom is a blurred area near the center of our vision. Although AMD does not lead to complete blindness, the loss of central vision can interfere with simple everyday activities such as the ability to see faces, drive, read, write, cook or fix things around the house.
Currently, no treatment exists for the early stages of AMD, which often produce no symptoms. In later stages, when blurring becomes noticeable, researchers have found that a daily intake of certain high-dose vitamins and minerals can slow progression of the disease. In advanced cases, with severe vision loss, several therapies can slow the disease: drug injections, laser treatment and, less common, laser surgery.
Preventive measures include regular exercise, normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and a diet rich in green, leafy vegetables and fish. Antioxidants, including beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin, protect the macula from sun damage.
Glaucoma: A result of too much fluid pressure inside the eye, glaucoma can lead to vision loss and blindness if not treated. Because glaucoma doesn’t exhibit early symptoms or pain, the best way to protect yourself is by having regular eye exams. If vision loss has already occurred, prescription eye drops, laser treatments or surgery can slow or prevent further vision loss. Although treatment, which focuses on lowering pressure in your eye, often starts with medicated eyedrops, research has shown that approximately 40 percent of patients do not take their glaucoma medications as prescribed, or do not continue to refill them. For treating glaucoma, experts recommend a healthy diet; regular exercise, which can reduce eye pressure in some forms of glaucoma; limiting caffeine, which can increase your eye pressure; and moderately drinking fluids.
Cataracts: Clouding of the lens that helps to focus light, or an image, on the retina is common in older people. By age 80, more than half of Americans either have a cataract or have had cataract surgery. Age-related cataracts can dull or blur vision because the clear lens becomes yellowish or brownish. In addition, cataract patients may experience fading colors, glares around lights, double vision and trouble seeing at night.
Beyond aging, risk factors for cataracts include diabetes, smoking, alcohol use and prolonged exposure to sunlight. To delay the onset of cataracts, experts recommend wearing sunglasses and a hat with a brim to block ultraviolet sunlight. Good nutrition is also important: green leafy vegetables, fruit and other foods with antioxidants, especially vitamin C. In cataracts’ early stages, new eyeglasses, brighter lighting, anti-glare sunglasses or magnifying lenses can help your vision; otherwise, surgery is the only effective treatment and involves replacing the cloudy lens with an artificial lens.
Diabetic eye disease: The most common form of eye disease that results from diabetes complications is diabetic retinopathy, which occurs when diabetes damages the tiny blood vessels inside the retina. Because diabetic eye disease has no warning signs, finding and treating the disease early, before it causes vision loss or blindness, is the best way to control it. The preventive measures are the same you would use to control diabetes: medications, healthy weight, physical activity and controlling your blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol.
Easily Treatable Eye Problems
While less serious vision ailments will not cause blindness, they can interfere with your daily life.
Low vision: People who have a hard time seeing—even with regular glasses, contact lenses, medicine or surgery—have low vision. Ordinary activities like reading the mail, shopping, cooking and seeing the TV can be challenging. Low vision is usually caused by eye injuries, birth defects or eye diseases such as AMD or glaucoma. Although it cannot be restored, low vision can be managed with proper treatment and “vision rehabilitation,” which includes adaptive devices and home modifications. Special tools can assist people with low vision read, write and manage daily tasks. Aids may include large-print reading materials, magnifiers, closed-circuit televisions and computers with large print and talking functions.
Dry eye: Poorly functioning tear glands especially affect aging women. Itching, burning or discomfort can make it more difficult to perform activities such as using a computer or reading for an extended period. For relief from dry eyes, experts recommend a home humidifier, special eye drops (artificial tears) or ointments.
Floaters: Most eye “cobwebs” are caused by small flecks of a protein called collagen, whose fibers shrink and shred over time. Most of the time people learn to live with these benign floaters, which often disappear over months or years. Although they are a normal part of aging, floaters are sometimes a sign of a more serious eye problem such as retinal detachment. If you see numerous new floaters and/or flashes of light, see your eye care professional right away. This is a medical emergency.
Tearing: Having your eyes tear may be caused by sensitivity to light, wind or temperature changes, or having dry eyes. Wearing sunglasses may help, as may eye drops. Sometimes tearing is a sign of a more serious eye problem, like an infection or a blocked tear duct.
“Age-Related Eye Diseases,” National Eye Institute
“Aging And Your Eyes,” National Institute on Aging
“The Aging Eye: See into Your Future,” Sharecare.com
“Glaucoma Eye Drops Prevent Vision Loss — But Only if Patients Use Them,” Glaucoma Research Foundation
“Facts About Age-Related Macular Degeneration,” National Eye Institute
“Macular Degeneration,” Medline Plus
“Treatments and drugs,” Mayo Clinic
“What is low vision?” National Eye Institute
To read more from this article, visit http://www.csa.us/freeresources/healthcarelibrary/envisioning-better-sight-for-aging-eyes/.
Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors