How Our Vision Changes as We Age
Thu Nov 14 17:33:08 UTC 2013
Aging affects the tissues in your eyes, just like other tissues in your body. Older adults also have a higher risk of eye diseases. Common conditions that cause vision problems in older adults include presbyopia, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, cataracts, and age-related macular degeneration. More than 3.3 million Americans age 40 and older have low vision and blindness, but serious vision loss is not inevitable. Learn the facts about risks to eyesight as you age.
Most people older than 40 need to hold reading material far away or wear reading glasses to read clearly. This is presbyopia (pronounced prez-bē-ˈō-pē-ə)—a blurring of near vision due to aging. Presbyopia occurs because the aging eye lens can’t change shape to focus as easily as it once did. This makes it harder for your eyes to focus on close objects. Presbyopia can also worsen farsightedness (hyperopia). Eyeglasses or contact lenses can restore clear reading vision.
Glaucoma is the leading cause of preventable blindness and includes several diseases that damage the optic nerve. The optic nerve is the pathway that carries images from your eye to the brain. Glaucoma usually occurs when eye fluid (aqueous humor) does not drain normally. This causes higher eye pressure. Glaucoma damage can also occur when pressure is normal; the reason for this is not known. Risks for glaucoma include age older than 60, elevated eye pressure, family history, nearsightedness, eye injury, steroid use, and African ancestry.
Having diabetes can damage blood vessels throughout your body, including your retina—the light-sensitive tissue lining the back of the eye. Diabetes can cause blockages in these blood vessels, which robs the retina of the nutrients and oxygen it needs to function properly. Advanced diabetic retinopathy causes the growth of fragile new blood vessels that leak blood into the center of the eye, blurring vision. People with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are at risk for diabetic retinopathy, which can also lead to blindness.
Cataracts are a clouding of the eye lens. The lens is like a bag of water, transparent cells, and proteins that are normally clear. Cataracts develop when aging proteins cluster, lose transparency, and become denser. These bundles of proteins create a discolored or opaque area in the lens and make it difficult for light to pass through the eye. Risks for cataracts include diabetes, smoking, toxic chemicals, alcoholism, and prolonged exposure to sunlight.
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) occurs when the macula in the eye breaks down. The macula is a small area in the retina, the light-sensitive tissue lining the back of the eye. A healthy macula is essential for precise visual tasks like reading and driving. Breakdown of the macula results in loss of central vision. Damage begins in the delicate tissue layers underneath the macula. Fluid accumulation, bleeding, and scarring lead to permanent tissue destruction. The exact cause of AMD is unclear. Risks of AMD include age 50 or older, smoking, being Caucasian, a high-fat diet, hypertension, sun exposure, and family history of AMD.
Regular eye exams are important for catching and treating eye problems before they cause permanent vision loss. Generally, adults should have an eye exam at age 40 with checkups every two years. Your doctor will likely advise more frequent eye exams if you have diabetes, high blood pressure, or a family history of eye diseases. It is also important to see your eye doctor right away for eye pain or vision changes.
Medically Reviewed By: William C. Lloyd III, MD Last Annual Review Date: October 30, 2013
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