Today about 30 million Americans age 40 or older suffer from some level of age-related vision loss.
Taking good care of your eyes is a vital aspect of healthy aging. Prevention and treatment can keep your eyes healthier and your vision clearer than your grandparents or great-grandparents enjoyed.
The three most common age-related vision loss risks people face as they age are glaucoma, cataracts, and macular degeneration.
Dr. John Nordlund of Retina and Glaucoma Associates in Williamsburg says vision loss can occur slowly and that in many cases, people do not realize that damage is occurring in their eyes until it is too late.
“A lot of eye diseases are controllable but not curable,” Nordlund explains. “It’s important to catch problems early on to prevent the most damage to your vision.”
A 2004 study by the National Eye Institute identified the four most common age-related eye diseases as glaucoma, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration, or AMD.
Age-related Macular Degeneration is the leading cause of blindness among adults age 50 and older.
It occurs when the retina and its lower layers become damaged, resulting in distorted and blurred central vision.
AMD is labeled as dry or wet; dry AMD can be diagnosed based on the presence of drusen—yellow and white deposits in the eye—during a dilated retinal examination.
Wet AMD, the less common form of the disease, is characterized by the growth of new blood vessels on the retina.
While Nordlund says there is no exact way to prevent age-related macular degeneration, studies have pinpointed several risk factors such as smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, and a diet high in saturated fats and low in fruits and vegetables.
According to Nordlund, while vitamins and zinc are used to treat dry AMD, wet AMD is treated with a series of injections behind the eye that block the growth of new blood vessels.
Glaucoma is a chronic eye disease that damages the optic nerve. African-Americans are at increased risk of developing glaucoma, as are those with a family history of the disease.
Glaucoma sneaks up on you much like hardening of the arteries. Your vision remains normal and there’s no pain, but it’s detectable through regular checkups which measure the pressure within your eye.
It occurs because of a blockage in the normal flow of fluid between the cornea and the lens. Symptoms include loss of peripheral vision, sensitivity to light and poor night vision, and sometimes, total blindness can occur.
While everyone is at higher risk of glaucoma after age 60, African Americans over 40 and Mexican Americans are more susceptible. (Medicare covers eye exams for those at high risk.)
Glaucoma causes permanent damage to the eye, but early detection and treatment can minimize vision loss. Those with a family history of glaucoma or who have other risk factors should receive frequent eye examinations.
During a routine eye exam, a tonometer is used to measure the pressure within the eye. The higher the pressure reading, the more likely the patient is to develop glaucoma.
All glaucoma treatments are aimed at lowering the intraocular pressure. The most popular treatments are medications in the form of eye drops, along with laser procedures and surgery, which can help minimize vision loss from glaucoma.
Cataracts are caused by the excess pigment in the lens of the eye, resulting in a cloudy vision.
Again, there is no pain and they develop slowly, usually after 60. If they become large or thick, they are removed surgically and an artificial lens is implanted.
Cataract surgery is the most common surgery performed in the U.S. It’s generally safe, but even “successful” cataract surgery can have some negative impacts on your vision, a fact that is very under-reported.
Most people will have cataracts by the time they are 80 years old. Symptoms can include poor night vision, sensitivity to light, and seeing distorted colors or halos around lights.
Studies have suggested that in addition to age, exposure to sunlight and cigarette smoking can increase one’s risk of developing cataracts.
Researchers also believe that a healthy diet including fruits as well as green, leafy vegetables and other antioxidant-rich foods can offer protective benefits.
Unlike most causes of vision loss, cataracts can be easily treated with lens replacement surgery. “Think of it as changing a lens in a camera,” Nordlund explains.
Though cataracts can be corrected with surgery, vision loss resulting from them is more significant, particularly after the age of 60, without proper screenings and routine visits to an eye doctor.
Diabetic retinopathy is the most common diabetic eye disease and a leading cause of blindness in American adults. It is caused by changes in the blood vessels and may take years to fully develop. In some patients, blood vessels in the eye will swell and leak fluid.
Common symptoms are “spiders” or “cobwebs” or tiny specks floating in the visual field, as well as blurred vision and poor night vision, among other symptoms.
Adults with diabetes should have an annual dilated retinal exam. Early detection of retinal damage allows effective treatment with lasers or eye medications before vision loss occurs.
Those with a family history of adult-onset diabetes (also known as Type 2 diabetes) should be screened regularly. Maintaining a healthy weight can also help prevent the disease.
Laser therapy, used to seal leaking blood vessels and steroid injections behind the eye can help prevent diabetes-related vision loss.
There are many studies that show that what you eat and the supplements you take have an impact on the health of your eyes and prolong your years of healthy eyes and good eyesight.
The American Optometric Association estimates that less than 1/3 of Americans improve their nutrition to help ward off or cope with vision loss.
Yet studies have shown that specific nutrients and herbs can help stop or prevent age-related vision loss.
Many Americans don’t get enough.
This is a potent antioxidant and may improve blood flow in the eyes and possibly help with glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration.
It seems to improve pre-existing damage from “normal tension” glaucoma and improves color vision in those with early diabetic retinopathy.
Bilberry has been associated with improvement of night vision and preliminary research has indicated that bilberry consumption may play a role in inhibiting eye disorders, including cataracts and glaucoma.
Eyebright has been used for eyestrain and to relieve inflammation caused by infections. There is considerable evidence that anti-inflammatory and antibacterial compounds in the herb may be helpful in cases of conjunctivitis.
One study showed exercise could reduce the risk of wet age-related macular degeneration by up to 70%! Walking as little as 12 blocks on a regular basis can help. Physical activity reduces the type of inflammation that is associated with wet age-related macular degeneration.
Protecting your vision is vital if you want to ensure your health, wellbeing, and ability to do things you enjoy as you age. Research has shown that the leading causes of age-related vision loss are preventable with a sound diet and supplements. Abstaining from chronic exposure to sunlight and cigarette smoking can also decrease chances of premature vision loss.
Resources: Lighthouse.org, medicineNet.com, emedicine.com, afb.org