You may barely notice the changes at first. Maybe you've found yourself reaching more often for your glasses to see up close. You might have trouble adjusting to glaring lights or reading when the light is dim. You may even have put on blue socks thinking they were black. These are some of the normal changes to eyes and vision as we age.
As more Americans head toward retirement and beyond, scientists expect the number of people with age-related eye problems to rise dramatically. All age-related changes to eyes can't be prevented. But steps can be taken to protect vision and reduce the risk for serious eye disease in the future. Effective treatments are available for many disorders that may lead to blindness or visual impairment. You can also learn how to make the most of the vision you have.
"Vision impairment and blindness are among the top 5 causes of disability in older adults," Dr. Cynthia Owsley, an eye researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham said. Vision changes can make it difficult to perform everyday activities, such as reading the mail, shopping, cooking, walking safely and driving. "Losing your vision may not be life-threatening, but it certainly affects your quality of life," Owsley said.
The clear, curved lens at the front of the eye may be one of the first parts of your body to show signs of age. The lens bends to focus light and form images on the retina at the back of the eye. This flexibility lets you see at different distance -- up close or far away. But the lens hardens with age. The change may begin as early as your 20s, but it can come so gradually it may take decades to notice.
Eventually age-related stiffening and clouding of the lens affects just about everyone. When you have trouble focusing on up-close objects -- a condition called presbyopia -- it's time for reading glasses.
The passage of time can also weaken the tiny muscles that control the eye's pupil size. The pupil becomes smaller and less responsive to changes in light. That's why people in their 60s need 3 times more light for comfortable reading than those in their 20s. Smaller pupils make it more difficult to see at night. That, coupled with a normal loss of peripheral vision as you age, can affect many daily activities, including the ability to drive safely.
If you're not convinced you should have regular eye exams, consider that some of the more serious age-related eye diseases -- like glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration, and diabetic eye disease -- may have no warning signs or symptoms in their early stages. The only way to detect these serious eye diseases before they cause vision loss or blindness is through a comprehensive dilated eye exam. Having regular comprehensive eye care gives your doctor a chance to identify a problem very early on and then treat it.
Steps you can take to protect your vision include:
* Have a comprehensive eye exam each year after age 50.
* Stop smoking.
* Eat a diet rich in green, leafy vegetables and fish.
* Maintain normal blood pressure.
* Control diabetes if you have it.
* Wear sunglasses and a brimmed hat any time you're outside in bright sunshine.
* Wear protective eyewear when playing sports or doing work around the house that may cause eye injury.
"It's nice to know that healthy living not only adds years to life, but also protects your vision as you get older," Owsley said.
Information for this article comes from the National Institutes of Health monthly newsletter, News in Health at http://newsinhealth.nih.gov. For more information on health and wellness topics, contact your local Southwind Extension District office or call me at (620) 223-3720.