As we age, it is common for our vision to deteriorate. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that 95% of Australians aged over 55 will experience eye problems or eye disease. But just because we’ve come to expect that our eye health will suffer over time, it does not mean it is something we should become complacent about. Understanding what happens to your eyes as you age will help you protect your vision, as well as give insight into what else your eyes might be telling you.
What happens to our eyes as we age?
The leading cause of vision loss in people over 60 years old is age-related macular degeneration, where the cells of the macular die with age and are not regenerated. The macula is a small part of the retina, an area at the back of the eye which is responsible for color and our central vision—what we see directly in front of us.
“Dry” macular degeneration is the most common form of the condition, with 10-15% of sufferers going on to develop “wet” macular degeneration. For sufferers of “wet” macular degeneration, the process is faster as abnormal vessels leak blood and other fluids into the macula, causing significant damage.
Other common causes of vision loss include cataracts (clouding of the eye’s natural lens), glaucoma (changes to the optic nerve), and diabetes-related eye complications.
While we are all at risk of developing poor eye health as we age, for some of us, lifestyle factors or other health conditions will exacerbate this risk.
If you suffer from a chronic systemic problem such as high blood pressure or diabetes, or have a family history of eye disease such as macular degeneration or glaucoma, your chances of developing significant problems in your eye health will be greater. Even the medication for seemingly unrelated illnesses, such as arthritis, depression, anxiety, or thyroid problems, can have side effects that affect your vision and eye health.
Similarly, jobs and workplaces hazardous for eye health can also contribute to vision loss, whether through welding glare or prolonged exposure to computer screens.
Symptoms to watch out for:
If you experience any of the following, you should have your eyes tested:
- You require more light to see by than you used to.
- You have trouble focusing on “near” work or reading materials.
- You notice a sudden increase in “floaters” or “flashers” in your vision—this may indicate increased particles in your eye fluid or even a tear in the retina.
- You have trouble seeing things in the distance.
- Words and straight lines may appear to blur, become distorted, or even disappear.
- Blank spots appear in your central vision.
- Your ability to produce tears diminishes.
Protecting your vision
There are a number of steps you can take to prevent the development of eye disease and protect your vision.
Diet: Studies have shown that regularly eating foods high in lutein and omega-3 fatty acids can prolong good eye health by protecting against macular degeneration. Incorporating foods such as salmon, spinach, kale, and collard greens in your diet can slow the process of eye deterioration that comes with aging.
Exercise: Regular exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of macular degeneration by up to 70%.
Don’t smoke: Smoking increases your chances of developing numerous health problems, including cataracts and macular degeneration. Smoking has also been linked to uveitis (inflammation of the eye’s middle layer), a condition which can cause complete and irreversible vision loss. Don’t speed up the aging process. Don’t smoke.
Protect: Just like the rest of your body, your eyes need protection from the sun’s harmful UV rays. If you are out in the sun or experiencing glare, make sure you are wearing good quality sunglasses. If your workplace presents a threat to your eye health, wear the necessary personal protective equipment. If you are working with computers, try reducing the display brightness—your screen should not seem like a light source in its surrounds, otherwise prolonged staring at it may cause strain.
What else can an eye test tell us?
Eye tests are also useful for assessing brain health and cognitive functioning, two areas of health that may also deteriorate with age. Eye problems, such as cataracts, thinning of the nerves in the retina, and unusually high sensitivity to pupil dilation drugs, are common warning signs of dementia. Regular eye tests measure the rate of cell death in our eyes, which if occurring rapidly is considered another warning sign for decreased cognitive ability. Seniors with poor vision are five times more likely to experience a decline in cognitive ability, and those who leave it untreated are 10 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. Eye tests can help with early detection, treatment, and minimization of these cognitive illnesses.
How often should you have your eyes tested?
Early intervention in eye disease can significantly reduce the level of vision loss experienced. Eye tests can also provide doctors with information about your brain health and cognitive functioning. So, it is important to maintain regular eye tests as you grow older. The Glaucoma Research Foundation says people aged 55 and over should be having their eyes tested every 1-2 years, while people over 65 should increase regularity to every 6-12 months.
If you know your risk of developing eye disease is higher than average due to systemic illness or lifestyle factors, take it upon yourself to begin having your eyes tested more regularly and at a younger age. Early detection could save your vision.
Take responsibility for protecting and monitoring your eye health, and enjoy your vision for longer.