At some point in life, most of us will face this moment of truth: No matter how far from your face you hold the book you’re reading, you can’t quite make out the words. It’s not that your arms aren’t long enough. It’s that you’re encountering changes in your vision that we all experience as we age.
This particular change, which can start in our 40s, is called presbyopia, a Greek word that literally means “old vision.” Presbyopia makes it more difficult to see things close up and can be easily corrected with reading glasses. However, other age-related changes can be more serious, which makes attention to eye health even more critical as we grow older.
Many Americans may not be aware they have problems with their eyes, yet even those who do, tend not to visit an eye-care specialist as frequently as they should. In a national government health survey, 40 percent of adults with severe visual impairment and half of those with at least some impairment had not seen an eye care specialist in the previous year. Those numbers grow particularly important as the population ages. More than 40 million Americans are age 65 or older, and that number is expected to reach 88 million by 2050.
For good reason, the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health recommends a comprehensive dilated eye exam by age 50. Although presbyopia is considered a normal part of aging, other types of vision loss are not. It’s important to know how your age is affecting your eyes and how to best protect them.
Age-related eye diseases and conditions
Macular degeneration. Also called age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, this is a deterioration of the macula, the area of the retina that controls visual acuity. AMD is the leading cause of blindness in older people. More than two million Americans have this condition, and by 2050 the number of people with AMD is expected to more than double to 5 million.
Glaucoma. This is a condition that causes damage to the optic nerve, most often linked to pressure buildup in the eye. One’s risk for glaucoma increases with each decade after age 40.
One thing that makes glaucoma so dangerous is that in its early stages it has no symptoms. By the time you notice symptoms, the disease may have progressed to irreversible vision loss – another good reason for regular eye exams.
Diabetic retinopathy. The Eye Institute estimates that of the more than 10 million Americans over age 40 known to have diabetes, 40 percent have some degree of diabetic retinopathy that could lead to permanent vision loss.
The good news is that with early intervention and treatment, vision impairment from this condition can be prevented. It may take ten years from a diabetes diagnosis to develop this condition, but it’s best to get an eye exam soon after diagnosis and once a year after.
Cataracts. A cataract is a clouding of the lens of your eye. Cataracts are quite common among older people, so common in fact that, according to the Eye Institute, by age 80 more than half of all Americans either have cataracts or have already had surgery to remove them. They occur when proteins in the lens begin to clump together, eventually clouding vision. Cataract surgery is one of the most common and safest surgeries performed in the United States.
Night vision problems. Many people experience reduction in night vision as they age, and it may become particularly noticeable when driving at night. Among other factors, aging can cause a reduction in the size of the pupil, allowing less light to reach our eyes at night. We may also experience a loss in contrast sensitivity, which may make it harder to distinguish people and objects from the background.
Aside from regular eye exams, there is much you can do to boost the health of your eyes well into your 80s and beyond. The University of California Berkeley Wellness Letter has these tips:
On sunny days especially, wear sunglasses and a hat with a brim. Lifelong exposure to ultraviolet rays can promote cataracts and macular degeneration. If you’re visiting a place with snow, it’s also a good idea to wear shades to reduce glare.
Avoid working or reading in bad light. Inadequate light won’t damage your vision, but you’ll be less prone to headaches and the frustration that comes with not being able to see well.
If you smoke, quit. Smoking has been shown to increase the risk of AMD, cataracts, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, and dry eye syndrome.
If you are experiencing problems driving at night, consider prescription night-driving glasses, which are designed to give you sharper vision in all lighting conditions and reduce glare for nighttime driving.
Also, before you drive, make sure your windows, headlights and mirrors are clean, and use your window defoggers frequently in inclement weather.
To further protect your vision,consider getting glasses made especially for digital devices such as computers, phones, and tablets. These glasses have special coatings that reduce exposure to harmful blue light emitted from LED screens.
Taking these steps may not prevent reading glasses, but they're your best bet for enjoying good vision for years to come.