While we often “see” some things more clearly with age, our physical eyes actually start deteriorating. Around the age of 40, our focusing ability starts to diminish and glasses or even bifocals are suddenly in order. But a number of common conditions can occur down the road that will require more than simple prescription glasses. Several of these can rob seniors of their eyesight—but most can be either prevented or managed adequately. The key is to detect and treat them early by having regular eye exams.
Cataracts: This is the progressive clouding of the eye’s lens, which affects more than half of all people older than 65. Cataract symptoms include blurred, dim, double, or distorted vision; poor night vision; increased nearsightedness; and heightened or halo-like glare from headlights or lamps. The only effective way to cure cataracts is through surgery, which removes the cloudy lens and usually replaces it with an artificial lens implant made of silicone or acrylic. The entire procedure takes only about a half hour and is one of the most common, safest and successful surgeries in the U.S. The new “intraocular lens” becomes a permanent part of your eye and will generally restore your vision to what it was before the cataract developed.
Glaucoma: Glaucoma is the second most common cause of legal blindness in the U.S. (and the leading cause in African-Americans), but only half of its victims are aware they have it. In glaucoma, the fluid that normally flows through the front section of the eye cannot drain properly. This causes the build-up of pressure, damage to the optic nerve, and finally vision loss.
Most people don’t notice any symptoms until they begin to lose some vision. Small blind spots may begin to develop, usually in the peripheral vision, and disease progression is gradual. Vision loss is usually preventable if glaucoma is detected early through painless testing. Treatment can include medication and/or surgery and is determined by the type and severity of your disease along with your medical history and lifestyle.
Macular Degeneration: This is an eye condition that stems from damage to the macula—the sensitive area in the retina responsible for central and detail vision. The “dry form” of the disease usually progresses slowly and causes central vision loss. The “wet” form is more rare and more severe; it may progress rapidly and cause significant central vision loss.
Macular degeneration is the most common cause of severe vision loss in people over 60. Symptoms include blurred or fuzzy vision; the wavy appearance of otherwise straight lines (such as sentences on a page); and a blind spot in the center of vision. The dry form is usually not treated except for low-vision rehabilitation, which helps patients adjust to their condition. For the wet form, laser surgery can help. A new treatment called photodynamic therapy, involving the injection of a drug called visudyne along with a laser procedure is now helping some patients.
Diabetic Retinopathy: Many seniors have type 2 diabetes, a condition in which the body cannot use or store sugar properly. High blood sugar, prolonged over time, can cause a condition called diabetic retinopathy, or damage to the blood vessels in the eye’s retina. These blood vessels may leak fluid, causing the retina to swell and form deposits. New, fragile blood vessels may grow on the surface of the retina, which can bleed, produce blurred vision, cause scar tissue and even lead to retinal detachment.
You cannot always prevent vision loss from diabetic retinopathy. About 80% of people who have had diabetes for more than 15 years have some damage to the retina’s blood vessels. However, there are ways to reduce your risk: keep your blood sugar under good control, maintain a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and have an annual eye exam.
Some of these eye conditions may not be noticeable to you because they have a gradual onset and our eyes compensate for the changes. There for you should get your eyes checked at least every two years.
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