The most known vision problem that usually comes with aging is when your arms are not long enough anymore to hold the newspaper far enough to be able to read what’s written in it. Or when it’s suddenly too bright in a well-lit room after you enter it from a dark environment. Or when you can’t exactly say is this blouse or shirt black or maybe navy blue… In fact, the eye loses the ability to focus back in the near zone. The condition is called presbyopia and can be helped by a pair of suitable reading glasses. Aging further will bring inability to focus in the middle zone, as well and also a pair of glasses for the monitor.
There are many others, well-known, not only related to old age vision problems, but to any age actually.
We all probably have experienced already eye or eyes being red, itchy, burning and a feeling that we can’t get rid of that something that has stuck in our eye, under the lid. No matter how hard we try, it usually gets only worse. This is conjunctivitis, with the tissue at the edge of the lids inflamed, caused by either allergies, infection or outer irritation. Quite often cosmetics can be the reason. Bacteria is also a common cause, but can be triggered by a virus. Antibiotics can help with bacterial infection, but in case of a viral conjunctivitis, it simply needs time for the virus to run its course. Artificial tear solutions and cool compresses may help to relief the discomfort, but will not heal the disease.
Depending on tear glands’ activity level, two uncomfortable conditions can be developed. One is dry eyes, when there is no sufficient quantity of tears, leaving the eyes itchy and sometimes burning. Artificial tears are usually used to relief symptoms. The other is the opposite, when excessive tearing occurs. If the eye is sensitive to these, it can be triggered by bright light, sharper wind, sudden temperature change. Also, it can occur as a result of diseases of the glands in the eyelids, chronic inflammation, allergies, as side effect of some medications, or prolonged contact lens wear, and even dry eyes can be irritated to the level of excessive tearing. The treatment will often include the treatment of the cause itself, but that’s something your ophthalmologist will discuss with you.
Sometimes we can see floaters which are small spots floating in front of our eyes. Mostly noticeable in bright light. They can normally occur, but if they appear to be suddenly increased in number or changed shape and accompanied by light flashes, it might be a sign of a much more serious problem, detached retina, explained below. In that case, it requires an urgent surgery.
And we can observe many more in ourselves, as we age or in our aging loved ones. We usually think eyesight normally deteriorates with age, but, is it right….
Does Aging Actually Affect Eyesight?
Well, apart from the above mentioned Presbyopia, technically, no. However, there are vision problems that are somewhat related to aging, but indirectly, as they are a result of conditions and diseases that are more often developed at an old age. So, let’s see what are the most common vision problems in the elderly
If left untreated, glaucoma can cause total blindness. And being a sneaky disease, developing silently, often without any symptoms, it slowly takes away your vision. Your optometrist will therefore measure your eye pressure routinely when you visit, to make sure a development of glaucoma can be excluded. It may be caused by multiple eye diseases which build up excessive amount of liquid which the eye can not manage, so the pressure in the eye raises. This high pressure causes the damage on the most sensitive part of it – the optic nerve that transfers the image caught by eye to the brain. If the eye nerve is utterly damaged, our brain simply does not receive what we see. When it happens, there’s no return. If noticed in earlier stages, however, medications or even surgery can be implemented to lower the high pressure in the eye, thus saving the nerve.
Once soft, clear and transparent, our eye lenses can start hardening, thickening thus becoming letting less light through. Similar to a shower cabin that slowly gets foggy, as the hot water on cold glass forms a thin layer of mist and less and less can you see through it. That’s the general feeling when someone has a cataract developing. Blurry, cloudy, double or distorted vision-all can be signs of a growing cataract. A person with this condition will usually also see a glow around light sources, and will have a poor night vision. It is difficult to notice it early, as it does not cause any irritation or pain and forms very gradually. When formed, it can not be reverted. The only way to restore one’s vision is by surgical replacement of the natural lenses by artificial, usually plastic ones. Luckily, the operation itself is considered one of the most routinely done of all. Yet, a doctor will decide whether it is necessary at the moment.
A blurred or distorted, somewhat darkened central vision is usually a sign of macular degeneration, a damaged macula, which is part of the retina (a thin lining on the back of the eye), close to the center and is a requisite of the sharp, detailed focused vision. As the damage process starts slowly, maybe in one eye only, it can go unnoticed for some time. However, it can turn to a very serious form and lead to a permanent central vision loss. The peripheral vision is not affected, but it is not really enough for a persons normal functioning. The disease can not be cured, only its development can be slowed down by laser surgery treatment. Therefore, if you observe any of the above mentioned symptoms, it is really important that you see a specialist doctor.
Another eye disease which, if untreated, can lead to blindness is highly affected by diabetes. Consistent high blood sugar level changes the blood vessels in the back of the eye, making them leaky. These are not only unable to transport the nutrients needed by the retina, but grow where they should not, behind and in the retina itself. They are very fragile and break easily, leaking fluid and blood, causing a distortion in vision and making the retina swell. A swelled retina will thicken and the vision is blurred. The central vision loss can be observed while reading, driving, usually colors are not clearly distinguished anymore. This condition is called diabetic retinopathy.
In more serious cases, the broken new tiny blood vessels will attempt to heal, causing scarring, so the retina will swell up to the point when the vitreous body will perform contractions and the retina might separate from its supportive tissue. It can also be caused by new vessels growing uncontrollably under the retina, pushing it away. This highly risky condition for one’s vision is called detached retina Only a day or two are at one’s disposal to undergo a repairing surgery, where the retina will be reattached, otherwise the vision may be permanently lost. The sooner one gets to an ophthalmologist, the better the chances are to retain the eyesight. As the disease does not go with any kind of pain, there is no warning by it. Therefore, it is extremely important to notice the symptoms and recognize them: seeing flashes of light, small flecks or threads floating in the visual field, darkening of the side vision. If any of these occur, you should call your doctor immediately.
It would however be much more favorable to prevent than be forced to try to lessen the consequences of an already developed eye disease.
How to Prevent Vision Loss at Old Age
By all means, schedule regular eye exams—every one or two years, especially if you are over age 50.
Many old age related vision problems can be prevented or corrected if you maintain your overall health and visit your physician on a regular basis to check for diseases that could initiate eye problems development, such as diabetes, for example. You should also see your ophthalmologist every one to two years. A thorough eye exam can reveal an early stage of an eye disease, at which most of them can be successfully treated. The eyesight-, the glasses-, and the eye muscles-test will be part of this exam. Your doctor will schedule an eye exam with pupil dilation, at least once a year for patients who have diabetes or a family history of eye disease. An eye specialist will also suggest a screening for glaucoma, if appropriate. When he or she does, do not doubt there is a reason for it.
Your immediate actions that will protect your vision in the future:
- quit smoking-smoking damages almost every organ in your body-including your eyes. So, if you smoke, you’ll do yourself and your eyes a huge favor by quitting it.
- find out whether you are part of the group of higher risk for developing eye diseases-and if you are, increasingly take care of regular check-ups with your doctor
- regularly exercise – it will not only improve the circulation in your body, but also reduce the risk of development of illnesses that can affect your eyesight
- have a healthy diet – eating a lot of fruits, green vegetables and fish, which can help reduce the risk of cataract and macular degeneration development
- protect your eyes in a bright sunshine against the harmful ultraviolet rays by quality sunglasses or other protective eye wear – it will reduce the risk of, for example, cataract development
- you may consider introducing eye vitamins to your diet
- call your eye doctor right away if you experience any loss of eyesight, blurred vision, eye pain, double or distorted, wavy vision, redness, swelling of your eye or eyelid, or any fluids leaking from the eye
Vision Correction in the Elderly
Reading a small printed book, doing embroidery, repairing some technical gadget with tiny parts, or other precise, close-up work will sometimes require only a magnifier and a brighter light. Nevertheless, the first and obvious means of vision correction are glasses or contact lenses. There are multiple options such as bifocal, trifocal or progressive eyeglass lenses. Similarly, multi-focal contact lenses are designed to provide clear vision, up close, far away and in between. It takes some time to get used to either of them, but both glasses and lenses are a reliable and precise aid.
Another option is laser surgery for vision correction. It may mean freeing oneself from wearing glasses or using contact lenses, which could be a relief, especially for the elderly people, who often forget where they’ve put them after the last usage. Yet, according to the Harvard Women’s Health Watch, exactly age is what brings special considerations. Apparently, all the different types of laser surgery correct vision by reshaping layers of the clear dome at the front of the eye, called cornea. Some age-related eye conditions, like cataract, glaucoma, dry eye, that you may have in your 40s, 50s or 60s will make your ophthalmologist carefully consider these when deciding whether to recommend you the surgery or not.
Is there normal life after vision loss? What if the vision is already not correctable? How to adapt to impaired vision?
Although the vision is rarely lost completely to total blindness, it is usually severely decreased. Add to that naturally occurring with aging decreased hearing, weakened sense of smell and taste, which might have helped to make up to the lost vision. Imagine a dark hood over your had that wouldn’t let you either see, hear, smell nor taste normally, as you are used to. That’s probably near to how a person at old age may feel with a vision impairment. It is obvious that it is difficult for an older person to adapt.
While impaired vision will actually affect everyday life and activities, it may be of greater psychological impact at the beginning, causing depression and withdrawal from company and activity overall. Providing moral support is therefore essential. Encouraging and assisting our loved ones, especially when they are still new to vision loss, at the beginning, until they get used to this very disturbing condition, may be all the difference between a depressed, withdrawn, scarred, completely inactive and an independently living, sticking to the usual activities and performing everyday tasks on one’s own person.
It is not easy, of course, as many adaptations will be needed. Your best choice is to contact a low vision specialist, who will evaluate a visually impaired person’s specific needs and suggest personalized solutions, low treatment options, such as mobility training, organizing methods, or, if needed, low vision aids. Driving independently, however, is probably out of reach at this stage.
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