One of the most obvious signs of aging isn’t something you can see – it’s actually how you see. Most people over the age of 40 will notice some change in their vision, which may worsen over time. This February, which is Low Vision Awareness Month, make sure that you hold on to your sight by keeping an eye out for early signs of the most common causes of age-related vision loss and taking preventative steps whenever you can.
Here are some of the most common causes of age-related vision loss and what you can do about them. Please keep in mind that any sudden or painful changes in vision should prompt an immediate trip to a doctor or hospital.
1. Presbyopia occurs when the eye’s lens loses its flexibility and can no longer focus the way it used to. People with presbyopia may notice that they can no longer read things like menus, books or newspapers close up and have to hold them farther away. You may require new prescriptions more frequently, though around age 60 these changes should gradually slow down.
Presbyopia is often thought of as a normal part of aging and unfortunately can’t be cured. It is usually treated with bifocal lenses or contacts or a separate pair of reading glasses. Some people undergo laser surgery to help.
2. Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of adult blindness in the U.S., affecting more than 2 million Americans over the age of 50. Early AMD may be asymptomatic and vision loss usually occurs gradually, manifesting as trouble reading or driving, or needing brighter light or a magnifying lens to read. A common early sign of AMD is that straight lines start to look curved or distorted. A more dangerous type of AMD called wet AMD, in contrast, usually presents as sudden vision changes or loss of central vision in one eye.
You may be able to minimize your risk for AMD by quitting smoking, managing other conditions like cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure, eating a diet high in antioxidants (especially kale, spinach, broccoli and peas), eating fish and nuts high in omega-3 fatty acids and having routine eye exams.
3. Diabetic retinopathy occurs in diabetics when chronically high blood sugar damages the delicate blood vessels in the eye. There are usually no symptoms in early diabetic retinopathy, but as it worsens, you may notice spots or strings in your vision, blurred vision, dark or empty areas, vision loss or trouble seeing colors. Both eyes are generally affected.
Fortunately, these problems can usually be avoided by keeping your blood sugar under good control (for most people, this means keeping your hemoglobin A1C levels under 7). Also be sure to control your cholesterol and blood pressure, get at least 30 minutes of activity a day, quit smoking and get regular eye exams.
4. Cataracts cause clouding in the eye’s normally clear lens, making it look like you’re peering through a fog. Cataracts grow slowly and gradually make vision cloudy, blurred or dim. Night vision may suffer. Some people may become highly sensitive to light or see halos around lights. Fortunately, many cataracts can be removed through a safe and simple surgery.
To reduce your risk of developing cataracts, wear sunglasses whenever you’re outside, reduce alcohol use, quit smoking, stay active and eat a diet high in antioxidants.
5. Glaucoma generally occurs when the pressure inside your eye increases and damages the optic nerve that allows you to see. There are two main types of glaucoma – open-angle glaucoma and acute angle-closure glaucoma. Open-angle glaucoma is more common and causes gradual loss of peripheral vision, eventually leading to tunnel vision. In contrast, acute angle-closure glaucoma is an absolute emergency, with symptoms that include sudden onset of eye pain, nausea, vomiting, vision loss, blurred vision, halos around lights or eye redness or hardening. With both types of glaucoma, not seeking care fast enough can result in permanent vision loss.
To help prevent permanent damage, be sure to see your eye doctor regularly so that you can catch glaucoma in its early stages. The Mayo Clinic recommends seeing your eye doctor every three to five years after 40 and every year after 60. If you are found to have elevated pressure in your eyes, certain eye drops may help reduce the risk of progression to glaucoma. Also, whenever you are playing sports or working with tools, be sure to wear eye protection, as eye injury can lead to glaucoma. Hats and sunglasses whenever you’re outside are also a must.