August is National Eye Exam Month and features a campaign for seniors sixty-five and over called Eye Care America. Under this program, volunteer Ophthalmologists provide a free medical eye exam for eligible seniors.
Problems with eyesight are more common as we age. Losing good eyesight can have far-reaching consequences in our elder years. What can we do to assure optimal eye health?
Firstly, we can become more aware of how our eyes might be changing and what is considered normal to age-related changes. At around the age of 40 it seems we can’t stretch our arms out far enough to focus on what we are reading. Reading glasses or multifocal contacts or eyeglasses become a necessity for most of us. This is Presbyopia and is a normal loss of focusing ability due to hardening of the lens inside the eye. It might be an inconvenience but it is correctible through a number of options.
Cataracts can cause cloudy vision, double vision, sensitivity to glare, halos, and trouble seeing in dim light or at nighttime. However, cataracts are so common among seniors that they are classified as a normal aging change. Fortunately, cataract surgery is safe and effective.
Dry eyes is another common eye problem due to lessened production of tears as we age. Dry eyes can be caused by smoking, menopausal changes, computer use, dehydration, allergies, overuse of sugar or other diseases like diabetes. There are prescription dry eye medications that can help.
It is important that we understand what are considered normal changes so that we can be vigilant about more serious eye symptoms that seem unusual.
Macular degeneration, or age-related macular degeneration (AMD), is the leading cause of blindness among Americans over the age of 65. Dry macular degeneration causes gradual central vision loss and results from aging and thinning of tissues in the macula. Wet macular degeneration arises from the body’s attempt to make up for lack of nutrients by building extra blood vessels beneath the retina, but the new blood vessels leak fluid which causes permanent damage to the retinal cells.
I became aware of macular degeneration when my mother was diagnosed with the disease in her mid-seventies. She had 2 sisters who also had AMD so I am keenly aware of being genetically predisposed to this eye disease. My mother lived many years with AMD but every year it seemed to become more difficult for her to manage simple tasks. Eventually it was not possible for her to remain alone in her own home and she moved into a retirement community. Her poor eyesight led to restricted mobility and loss of balance. She fell as a result and with a broken hip and femur, needed long-term care in a skilled nursing facility. She died a day before the year anniversary date of her fall.
Glaucoma refers to diseases that cause optic nerve damage, some of which are related to an increase in intra ocular pressure and which cause progressive vision loss. There are very few noticeable symptoms until diminished vision occurs. Risk of developing glaucoma increases with each decade after age forty.
Diabetic retinopathy can lead to permanent vision loss but is preventable through proper use of medications, proper diet and lifestyle, and by working with a doctor.
Given the various eye problems we face as we age, it is important to discuss preventative measures;
- Protect eyes from ultraviolet light by wearing a brimmed hat and sunglasses that protect eyes from UV radiation.
- Monitor your sugar intake. Higher sugar intake is associated with a higher risk of developing eye conditions. Cataracts for example can be a result of sugar limiting the eye keeping the lens clear.
- Adopt a healthy diet filled with leafy greens, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Drink water daily.
- When watching TV, on the computer and/or reading, be sure to have good lighting and take short breaks to rest the eyes.
- Do not smoke. The risk of developing cataracts is doubled if you smoke and the risk of macular degeneration is 2.5 to 3.5 times greater if you smoke.
- Exercise regularly to keep physically fit.
- Regular eye exams along with annual physicals to identify underlying conditions such as diabetes, and cardiovascular disease which increase the risk of age-related eye diseases.
Early detection and treatment can retain good vision. Consult your doctor if you experience;
- Blurred vision with glasses
- Extreme sensitivity to light
- Eye pain
- Burning sensation
- Constant watering
- Black spots in sight
EyeCare America provides two programs; The Seniors program provides a medical eye exam at NO cost to seniors sixty-five years and over with a year of follow-up care. The Glaucoma program provides a free baseline glaucoma eye exam to those who are eligible and uninsured. Check EyeCare America to see if you qualify. Visit www.eyecareamerica.org or check with your own eye doctor about these programs.
There are many great resources to learn more about eye health.
Massachusetts Commission for the Blind; www.mass.gov/eohhs/gov/departments/mcb/
Visions of Independence; www.visionsofindependence.info/voi.htm
Massachusetts Association for the Blind & Visually Impaired; www.mabcommunity.org/
All About Vison at www.allaboutvision.com/
Good vision is something we often take for granted until we lose it. According to a recent survey by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), that of all disabilities, Americans report that loss of eyesight would have the greatest impact on their daily life, ranking ahead of loss of memory, speech, arm or leg and hearing. By keeping an eye on awareness and prevention, it is possible to maintain your eyesight for a lifetime.