Aging and Your Eyes Many Conditions Can Cause Long-term Damage If Not Addressed

Are you holding the newspaper farther away from your eyes than you used to? Join the crowd — age can bring changes that affect your eyesight. Some changes are more serious than others, but for many problems, there are things you can do to protect your vision. The key is to have regular eye exams so you can spot problems early.

Have your eyes checked regularly by an eye care professional — either an ophthalmologist or optometrist. People over age 65 should have yearly eye exams. During this exam, the eye-care professional should put drops in your eyes that will widen (dilate) your pupils so that he or she can look at your inner eye. This is the only way to see some common eye diseases that have no early signs or symptoms. If you wear glasses, your prescription should be checked too.

See your doctor regularly to check for diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure. These diseases can cause eye problems if not treated. Also, see an eye care professional right away if you:

  • Suddenly cannot see or everything looks dim;
  • See flashes of light;
  • Have eye pain;
  • Experience double vision; or
  • Have redness or swelling of your eye or eyelid.

Protect your eyes from too much sunlight by wearing sunglasses that block ultraviolet radiation and a hat with a wide brim when you are outside.

Common Eye Problems

The following common eye problems can be easily treated. But sometimes they can be signs of more serious issues.

Presbyopia is a slow loss of ability to see close objects or small print. It is normal to have this as you get older. People with presbyopia often have headaches or strained, tired eyes. Reading glasses usually fix the problem.

Floaters are tiny specks or ‘cobwebs’ that seem to float across your vision. You might see them in well-lit rooms or outdoors on a bright day. Floaters can be a normal part of aging. But sometimes they are a sign of a more serious eye problem such as retinal detachment. If you see many new floaters and/or flashes of light, see your eye-care professional right away. This is a medical emergency.

Tearing (or having too many tears) can come from being sensitive to light, wind, or temperature changes or having dry eyes. Wearing sunglasses may help, as might trying eye drops. Sometimes tearing is a sign of a more serious eye problem, like an infection or a blocked tear duct. Your eye care professional can treat these problems.

Eyelid problems can come from different diseases or conditions. Common eyelid problems include red and swollen eyelids, itching, tearing, and crusting of eyelashes during sleep. These problems may be caused by a condition called blepharitis and treated with warm compresses and gentle eyelid scrubs.

Eye Diseases And Disorders

The following eye conditions can lead to vision loss and blindness, although they may have few or no symptoms early on. Regular eye exams are your best protection. If your eye-care professional finds a problem early, there are things you can do to keep your eyesight.

Cataracts are cloudy areas in the eye’s lens causing blurred or hazy vision. Some cataracts stay small and don’t change your eyesight a lot. Others become large and reduce vision. Cataract surgery can restore good vision. It is a safe and common treatment. If you have a cataract, your eye-care professional will watch for changes over time to see if you would benefit from surgery.

Corneal diseases and conditions can cause redness, watery eyes, pain, problems with vision, or a halo effect of the vision (things appear to have an aura of light around them). Infection and injury can also hurt the cornea. Some problems with the cornea are more common in older people. Treatment may be simple — for example, changing your eyeglass prescription or using eye drops. In severe cases, surgery may be needed. It generally works well and is safe.

Dry eye occurs when tear glands don’t work well. You may feel itching, burning, or have some vision loss. Dry eye is more common as people get older, especially for women. Your eye care professional may tell you to use a home humidifier, special eye drops (artificial tears), or ointments to treat dry eye. In serious cases, special contact lenses may help.

Glaucoma comes from too much fluid pressure inside the eye. If not treated, it can lead to vision loss and blindness. People with glaucoma have no early symptoms or pain. You can protect yourself by having regular dilated eye exams. Glaucoma can be treated with prescription eye drops, lasers, or surgery.

Retinal disorders are a leading cause of blindness in the U.S. Retinal disorders that affect aging eyes include:

  • Age-related macular degeneration. AMD can harm the sharp vision needed to see objects clearly and to do common things like driving and reading. During a dilated eye exam, your eye-care professional will look for signs of AMD. There are many treatments for AMD. If you have this condition, ask if special dietary supplements could lower your chances of it getting worse.
  • Diabetic retinopathy. This problem may occur if you have diabetes. It develops slowly and with no early warning signs. If you have diabetes, be sure to have a dilated eye exam at least once a year. Keeping your blood sugar under control can prevent diabetic retinopathy or slow its progress. Laser surgery can sometimes prevent it from getting worse.
  • Retinal detachment. This is a medical emergency. When the retina separates from the back of the eye, it’s called retinal detachment. If you see new floaters or light flashes, go to your eye-care professional right away. With surgery or laser treatment, doctors often can prevent loss of vision.

Low Vision

Low vision means you cannot fix your eyesight with glasses, contact lenses, medicine, or surgery. Low vision affects some people as they age. You may have low vision if you:

  • Have trouble seeing well enough to do everyday tasks like reading, cooking, or sewing;
  • Can’t recognize the faces of friends or family;
  • Have trouble reading street signs; or
  • Find that lights don’t seem as bright.

If you have any of these problems, ask your eye-care professional to test you for low vision. There are special tools and aids to help people with low vision read, write, and manage daily tasks. These include large-print reading materials, magnifying aids, closed-circuit televisions, audiotapes, electronic reading machines, and computers with large print and a talking function. Sometimes changing the type of lighting in your room can help. Other changes that may help are:

  • Writing with bold, black felt-tip markers;
  • Using paper with bold lines to help you write in a straight line;
  • Putting colored tape on the edge of your steps to help you see them and prevent you from falling;
  • Installing dark-colored light switches and electrical outlets that you can see easily against light-colored walls;
  • Using motion lights that turn on by themselves when you enter a room. These may help you avoid accidents caused by poor lighting;
  • Using telephones, clocks, and watches with large numbers, and putting large-print labels on the microwave and stove.

Ask your eye doctor if your vision is OK for safe driving.

This article was prepared by the National Institute on Aging, a division of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

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