Older Vision: What's Normal, What's Not?

Related topics: Health & Wellness

Polls have shown that most people fear vision loss as much as they do Alzheimer's disease, heart disease or other age-related conditions.

Senior man with glasses

Those polled are right to be concerned, according to a recent Purdue University study, which investigated the effects of age-related vision loss. Published in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology, the study found that over an eight-year period, a decline in even one letter size on an eye chart was associated with a 16 percent increase in mortality risk in study participants. Study author Sharon L. Christ explained that this is because loss of vision affected the daily activities that allow seniors to remain independent and active. Prof. Christ says, "These daily activities were not the necessary functioning activities such as bathing, dressing and eating, but rather instrumental daily activities, such as telephone use, shopping and preparing their own meals. When individuals were no longer able to engage in these activities because of visual impairments, their life expectancy was reduced."

As part of the recent Healthy Aging Month, the American Academy of Ophthalmology shared the following information to help older adults understand the common visual changes of aging—and to help them identify signs that mean something serious could be happening that requires immediate medical attention.

  • Reading a menu or sewing has become increasingly difficult. As the eye ages, its lens becomes less flexible, making it more difficult to read at close range or do "near work." This condition is called presbyopia, which comes from the Greek meaning "aging eye." Nearly all adults experience presbyopia starting around age 40. The most common treatment is simply to use reading glasses.
  • Eyes suddenly burn or sting and water excessively. While seemingly opposite symptoms, both of these can be a sign of dry eye. Dry eye is very common as people age, especially in women undergoing hormonal changes that can alter the production of tears. For most people, treatment for dry eye is as simple as using over-the-counter eye drops. If these do not provide relief, an ophthalmologist—a medical doctor specializing in the diagnosis, medical and surgical treatment of eye diseases and conditions—may prescribe medication or suggest surgical options.
  • Seeing clouds float in front of vision or occasional flashes of light. The clouds are actually tiny clumps of cells floating in the vitreous gel, the clear gel-like fluid inside the eye, and are also called "floaters." The flashes of light are caused by vitreous gel pulling at the retina, the light-sensitive tissue lining the back of the eye, as it moves. Floaters and flashes become more common as one ages, but a sudden increase could be a sign of a torn retina, and an ophthalmologist should be seen immediately, as surgery is often a required treatment.
  • Colors are muted; lights appear to have halos. These can be a sign of cataracts, a clouding of the eye's lens that nearly everyone develops as they age. Treatment for cataracts is usually surgery, which is one of the most common elective surgeries performed in the United States, and has been shown to significantly improve vision and quality of life.
  • Central vision seems hazy, making it difficult to recognize faces. This is a common symptom of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Because symptoms usually aren't noticeable until vision loss has already occurred, routine eye exams are essential to help diagnose AMD early to prevent vision loss. AMD has two forms—wet and dry. Treatment for wet AMD usually includes injections of anti-VEGF, a type of drug that blocks the growth of abnormal blood vessels under the retina that cause wet AMD. At this time, dry AMD has no proven treatment, but research has shown that certain dietary supplements can help to slow its progression.
  • Trouble seeing at intersections while driving. Deteriorating peripheral vision may be a sign of glaucoma, a leading cause of irreversible blindness. Vision loss is so gradual that people affected by the condition are often unaware of it until their sight has already been compromised. Fortunately, most vision loss from glaucoma can be prevented with early detection and medical intervention, which emphasizes the importance of seeing an ophthalmologist regularly, especially if a person has certain risk factors such as African or Hispanic ancestry and having migraines, diabetes or low blood pressure. The most common treatment for glaucoma is medicated eye drops.

Visit the American Academy of Ophthalmology's consumer information website, EyeSmart (www.geteyesmart.com) to learn more about presbyopia, dry eye, floaters and flashes, cataracts, age-related macular degeneration and glaucoma .

Source: American Academy of Ophthalmology (www.aao.org), adapted by IlluminAge.

The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. Talk to your ophthalmologist or other eye care professional with questions about eye health.

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