Have you ever heard your parents or grandparents say, “I think my vision is getting worse, but it’s just because I’m old”? While there are age-related changes that occur in the eye, many are correctable or can be prevented with regular eye exams and early intervention. The most common cause of preventable vision loss in the world is cataracts. Cataracts are the gradual clouding of the lens inside the eye. This occurs to everyone with age, but can happen more rapidly due to certain medications, fluctuating blood sugar levels (diabetes), and also significant or extended exposure to UV light. Sometimes vision can be improved by simply changing the eyeglasses prescription, but most people eventually need surgery to remove the cataracts. Cataract surgery is the most performed surgery in the world with a very high success rate. Most patients report improved clarity and brightness of vision after surgery.
While cataracts are an aging process of the eyes that occurs in everyone, diseases like glaucoma and macular degeneration can cause permanent vision loss and your risk of these conditions increases with age. Glaucoma is damage to the optic nerve, usually associated with high pressure within the eye. Unfortunately, vision loss begins peripherally and some people do not realize they have lost vision until it is severe and involves central vision. However, with annual eye exams, your doctor can check your eye pressure and optic nerve appearance for any signs of glaucoma. Lowering the eye pressure reduces the risk of further eye damage and vision loss and can be as simple as using an eye drop once daily. Macular degeneration is another disease that can cause permanent vision loss and is in fact the leading cause of vision loss in those ages 60 and older. There are two forms of macular degeneration: dry & wet. Luckily the dry form is the most common (90%) and least severe. The wet type causes bleeding and swelling inside the eye and can lead to significant vision loss. However, there are treatments that can reduce your risk of progression from dry to wet (over-the-counter vitamins) and laser procedures or ocular injections for bleeding within the eye. Again, having annual eye exams to check for macular degeneration can prevent vision loss by early detection and treatment.
So, what impact does visual impairment have on us as we age? A recent study published in the November 2016 issue of the Journal of American Geriatrics Society looked at just this topic. The conclusion of the study indicated a “causal” link between severe visual impairment and declines in physical and cognitive function in the study participants. Activities measured were walking, swimming & gardening, as well as reading, memory & social engagement, among others. Therefore, postponing or eliminating vision loss can help maintain good physical and mental ability as we age. What can we do to prevent/postpone vision loss?
- Have annual comprehensive eye exams for preventative care and timely treatment
- Maintain a healthy weight with a well-rounded diet and exercise
- Take all medications (over-the-counter and prescription) as directed by your doctor
- Keep blood pressure and blood sugar values within the normal range