Certain things in life seem inevitable as one grows older, such as wrinkles, gray hair, and an expanding waistline, but everyone ages differently. All our senses are affected to some degree as we age, including vision – in most cases, subtle changes impact eyesight over a period of time. In other cases, a serious eye disease can impart far more obvious changes in vision. Here is a look at common vision changes in adults, as well as age-related eye diseases affecting a growing number of older Americans.
Common Aging Vision Changes
Although some vision changes affect a majority of middle-aged and older adults, they are not a sign of more serious eye problems. When they first occur, the following changes will likely be most noticeable when a person is reading, working on a computer, or driving.
- Needing more light to see
- Discerning the difference between some colors, especially shades of blue and green, caused by the normally clear lens becoming discolored
- Focusing on near objects, caused by decreased flexibility in the lens
- Adjusting to glare, caused by light entering the eye to be scattered rather than focused precisely on the retina
- Dry and irritated eyes, caused by reduced tear production
People of all ages can suffer from computer vision syndrome, however, this is usually more prevalent in middle-aged people. That’s because they spend an average of 9.5 hours a day in front of screens, according to a study by the Council for Research Excellence. Symptoms can include headaches, blurred vision, neck pain, dry or red eyes, fatigue, double vision, and difficulty refocusing.
What is Presbyopia?
Around the age of 40, a person with 20/20 vision may start to experience vision problems for the first time in their life. It may become difficult to read, work on a computer, thread a needle, or text on a smartphone. While this problem may feel like it occurred suddenly, subtle changes in vision actually start in childhood. This condition is called presbyopia, which in Greek means “old eye.” Our eyes gradually lose the ability to see things clearly up close as we age, and while this can be a source of frustration, it is not a sign of eye disease. In younger people, the clear lens behind the colored iris is flexible and soft, easily changing shape to focus light onto the retina, which enables clear vision. After age 40, the lens becomes more rigid, losing its ability to easily change shape.
Presbyopia is typically corrected with eyeglasses or contact lenses, although there are also surgical options. Procedures include corneal inlays, monovision LASIK, conductive keratoplasty, and refractive lens exchange. If you do nothing, you’ll likely experience headaches and eye strain and find it increasingly difficult to perform close-up tasks.
Age-Related Eye Disease
The number of older adults at risk for age-related eye diseases such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD), cataract, diabetic retinopathy, and glaucoma is increasing as the baby boomer generation ages. Together, these conditions are the primary cause of vision impairment and blindness in the U.S. An estimated 1.3 million people age 40 and older are legally blind. The following are age-related eye disease estimates from the 2012 Vision Problems in the U.S. report.
- AMD: More than 2 million people age 50 and older
- Cataract: 24.4 million people age 40 and older
- Diabetic retinopathy: 7.7 million people age 40 and older
- Glaucoma: 2.7 million people age 40 and older
Signs of Eye Health Problems
The following could be early warning signs of a serious eye health problem. If you experience any of these issues, schedule an appointment with an eye doctor as soon as possible.
Fluctuating vision: Frequent changes in vision could be a sign of diabetes or hypertension (high blood pressure). Diabetic eye disease damages the tiny blood vessels in the retina, the light-sensitive layer at the back of the eye, which can result in permanent loss of sight.
Floaters and flashes: These are small, dark or shadowy shapes, spots, thread-like strands, or squiggly lines. They move as your eyes move and if you try to look at them directly, they dart away. While they can affect younger people, floaters are a natural part of the aging process. A vitreous detachment causes the vitreous to pull the fine fibers away from the retina all at once, rather than gradually, resulting in new floaters appearing suddenly. In most cases, floaters are not sight-threatening and require no treatment. An exception is if you suddenly see more floaters than normal along with bright, flashing lights. This could be a sign of a retinal tear and necessitates an immediate appointment with an eye doctor.
Loss of side vision: Moderate and severe cases of peripheral vision loss lead to “tunnel vision,” which produces the sensation of seeing through a narrow tube. The loss of side vision may be caused by glaucoma. This disease damages the optic nerve, impacting its ability to transmit all visual images to the brain. Other causes include retinitis pigmentosa, eye strokes/occlusions, a detached retina, and brain damage incurred from a stroke, neurological disease, or injury.
Distorted images: If straight lines appear distorted or wavy or there is a blind spot in the center of your vision, you may have AMD. The disease affects the macula, the part of the retina responsible for central vision.
Eye Health Tips for Adults
The following simple tips can help prevent eye strain and decrease the risk of cataracts and eye injuries.
- Wear sunglasses that block 100% of UV-A rays and UV-B rays.
- Keep screens at a distance whether you are working on a computer or watching a movie at the theater.
- Follow the 20/20/20 rule when staring at a screen. Every 20 minutes, look 20 feet away for 20 seconds to blink and relax your eyes.
- Take high quality fish oils and fish-oil supplements or eat at least five to six four-ounce servings of fatty fish a week. The antioxidants and omega-3s may help prevent the damage from free radicals associated with diseases like AMD and support healthier tear film.
- Eat dark, leafy greens like kale or spinach, broccoli, zucchini, peas, and Brussels sprouts to reap the eye health benefits of lutein and zeaxanthin. Research suggests they help reduce the stressful effects of glare and exposure to bright light by absorbing some of it.
- Wash your hands before handling contact lenses (and their case) to prevent bacteria and eye infections. Replace contacts as often as prescribed. Never use saliva or water as a lubricating solution! Remove lenses before bed and when taking naps. Give your eyes a rest by wearing glasses once a week.
- Wear polycarbonate eye goggles when using power tools and for yard work, sawing, sanding, drilling, nailing, painting and cleaning the oven.
Following preventive eye health tips, regular eye exams, and prompt treatment of common and serious eye problems can help you preserve good vision throughout life.