Our eyesight is one of the first senses to be affected by aging. Just as our physical strength tends to decrease as we age, the same is true for our eyes.
So, what can you do to protect your eyesight and eye health as you get older, to more fully enjoy those golden years?
This educational guide will discuss the eye health problems you might encounter as your eyes age in your adult years. It will also help you understand how your vision changes as you age and, more importantly, ways to keep your eyes healthy for a lifetime of good vision.
Your risk of cataracts, glaucoma and other eye problems increases after age 40 — especially if you have health problems such as high blood pressure or diabetes.
Early signs of these age-related diseases often begin in this mid-life age range, even though the conditions may not affect your vision until later. It’s important, then, to get plenty of exercise, stop smoking and have your eyes examined regularly to monitor their health.
You should also pay close attention to your diet. Studies have shown dietary choices may protect the lens of the eye and reduce the risk of some conditions that may affect your sight later on. So it’s important to eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants.
When you reach your 40s you’ll also begin to experience a normal age-related eye change called presbyopia. This is when your arms “aren’t long enough” to read the newspaper without reading glasses or bifocals. Several vision correction options are available, including eyeglasses and contact lenses, as well as refractive surgical procedures that can restore your vision at all distances and eliminate the need for eyeglasses or contacts.
After age 40, you also may notice that your eyes are feeling dry more frequently. This is particularly true for women after menopause. Reduced tear production is a common aging change, and new technologies are available to help you manage dry eye symptoms.
Make sure to schedule routine eye exams at least once a year so you’re on top of any changes in your eye health.
Many of the same eye conditions previously encountered in your 40s will continue into your 50s. Therefore your risk for cataracts, macular degeneration and glaucoma begins to increase.
For instance, you may encounter a loss of peripheral vision, which is an early sign of glaucoma. Problems like glaucoma often have no obvious symptoms until vision is permanently lost, but can be detected early with regular eye exams before vision loss occurs.
Woman receiving an eye exam. Caption says: Regular eye exams become more important as you reach your 50s.
To reduce your risk of cataracts, maintain a healthy lifestyle and eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables that contain vitamins and antioxidants that nourish the eye, such as vitamins A and C. Salmon and other cold-water fish are excellent sources of essential omega-3 fatty acids that are important to the health of the macula, the part of the eye responsible for central vision.
Regular eye exams become more important as you reach your 50s. Not only do you need to keep pace with the changes in your vision by updating your prescription for glasses or contact lenses, but you also want to be certain that no vision problems are beginning to develop. Certain medications may affect your vision and eye health, so it’s important to tell your doctor about all of your medications.
People over age 60 should have yearly dilated eye exams. During this exam, your eye doctor will put drops in your eyes that will widen (dilate) your pupils so that he or she can look at the back of each eye.
This is the only way to find some common eye diseases that have no early signs or symptoms. If you wear glasses, your prescription should be checked, too. See your eye doctor regularly to check for diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure, as these diseases can cause eye problems if not controlled or treated.
Lights from oncoming traffic, as seen from an automobile at night. Caption says: Halos and glare around lights when driving at night are signs of cataracts.
Cataracts are the most common eye condition, and the symptoms are easy to recognize. Early signs include halos and glare around lights when driving at night, and colors may not appear as bright. The yellowing of the eye lens due to cataracts affects color perception and contrast sensitivity. The only available treatment is cataract surgery, where your natural lens in the eye is replaced with an intraocular lens (IOL). The latest technology includes presbyopia-correcting IOLs that help you see at all distances, as well as toric IOLs that correct astigmatism.
Be alert to warning signs of more serious, age-related vision problems that could cause blindness, such as floaters and spots or flashes of light. They might indicate problems such as retinal detachment, which is a medical emergency. As we age, the gel-like vitreous inside the eye begins to liquefy and pull away from the retina, causing spots, floaters and flashes of light. This condition, called vitreous detachment, is usually harmless. But floaters and flashes of light can also signal the beginning of a detached retina — a serious problem that can cause blindness if not treated immediately.
You may also find your ability to see in low-lighting environments decreases. As we age, our pupils become smaller and less responsive to changes in ambient lighting. Because of these changes, people in their 60s need up to three times more ambient light for comfortable reading than those in their 20s.
It’s still important to maintain a healthy lifestyle, including making sure you are getting the nutrients your eyes need for good health. Schedule annual eye exams with your optometrist or ophthalmologist, and let your eye doctor know about any changes in your overall health as well.
In your later years, remember that many eye problems are painless, and you may see no change in your vision until the disease has become quite advanced. While normally we think of aging as it relates to conditions such as presbyopia and cataracts, more subtle changes in our vision and eye structures also take place as we grow older.
Aging causes a normal loss of peripheral vision, with the size of our visual field decreasing by approximately one to three degrees per decade of life. By the time you reach your 70s and 80s, you may have a peripheral visual field loss of 20 to 30 degrees. Reduced pupil size can affect your peripheral vision and driving safety in your senior years.
Low vision is also something to be aware of during these years. Low vision describes significant visual impairment that can’t be corrected fully with glasses, contact lenses, medication or eye surgery. Low vision affects some people as they age. You may have low vision if you:
- Can’t see well enough to do everyday tasks like reading, cooking, or sewing
- Have difficulty recognizing the faces of your friends or family
- Have trouble reading street signs
- Find that lights don’t seem as bright
If you’re experiencing any of these problems, ask your eye care professional to test you for low vision. Special tools can help people with low vision to read, write and manage daily tasks.
You also may notice a loss of some of your color vision. Cells in the retina that are responsible for normal color perception decline in sensitivity as we age, causing colors to become less bright and the contrast between different colors to be less noticeable. In particular, blue colors may appear faded or washed out. If this is a problem, ask your eye doctor about special lenses that can increase contrast.
You can reduce your chances of developing serious eye problems by maintaining a healthy lifestyle along with regular eye exams. Be sure to discuss with your eye doctor any concerns you’re experiencing with your eyes or vision, and don’t forget to mention any history of eye diseases or problems in your family.
Following these steps will help you enjoy your precious gift of sight to the fullest.