As the days go by the one guarantee in life and is that we are all getting older. With age comes new and somewhat different risks related to our vision. In our 40s, the risks start to increase and by the time we reach our 60s our eyes can exhibit significant age-related changes in performance.
Some of the changes are normal such as presbyopia, the need to wear reading glasses to read the fine print. Other changes such as cataracts are common with the elderly and can be corrected with surgery. There are other more serious age-related changes to the eye that may have a significant potential to impact your quality of life. Let’s look at these potential changes and review the top 5 things you can do to reduce the risk.
Cataracts are a progressive medical condition. As you age, the lenses in your eyes become less flexible, less transparent and thicker. Tissues within the eye can break down and clump up. Over time the lens of the eye becomes opaque resulting in a loss of resolution and blurred vision.
Glaucoma is a condition associated with increased pressure within the eye leading to a gradual loss of sight. It is caused by slow and gradual deterioration of the optic nerve and the associated fluid build-up. Normally this fluid can freely flow out of your eye, but as you age the channels for flow get blocked and the liquid builds up. It is a leading cause of blindness in North America.
Macular degeneration is a condition that affects the central part of the retina known as the macula. The exact causes are not well known, but research suggests a link to genetics and some environmental factors such as smoking, diet and exposure to UV rays. This degeneration results in distortion or loss of vision in the central field of view. It is most common in older adults and as such it is also known as age-related macular degeneration.
There can also be a change in our ability to resolve the contrast between colours. As the retina becomes less sensitive, colours become less bright and the ability to discern differences in colours is reduced. For example, the colour blue may appear less intense or more faded. While there is no treatment you need to be aware of this change if your job requires fine colour discrimination such as an artist, interior designer, or electrician.
Dry eyes is a common complaint of all ages, but can be more common as we age. Dry eyes creates discomfort, often accompanied by burning eyes. Treatment includes the application of artificial tears, eye drops or taking Omega 3. Dry eye is a medical condition and the correct diagnosis is important. See your optometrist to ensure you have the correct diagnosis and treatment. These appointments are covered by Alberta Health.
As people get older, they lose some strength in the muscles that control the pupil. This results in our pupils becoming somewhat smaller and less responsive to changes in general lighting levels. Smaller pupils result in us needing up to three times as much light to be able to see fine detail such as reading. This combined with the onset of presbyopia makes it even harder to read fine print in low light. Eye glasses with a proper prescription is the best solution.
Loss of peripheral vision is another common complaint as we age. The cause is related to the reduction in pupil size and the size of our visual field decreasing. This is a big concern when driving or for other activities requiring a good understanding of changes in the near-field environment. People need to get used to turning their head to get a good understanding of their surroundings.
There are many risks to our eyesight as we age and recognizing the risk is an important step in reducing the impact of these changes. While there is little you can do about your family history and genetics there are things you can actively do. Here are the top 5 things you can do to reduce the risk of disability from these changes.
- See your Optometrist
Many common eye diseases have no early signs or symptoms. During a comprehensive eye exam your optometrist examines the tissues and structures inside the eye, looking for diseases. They are also looking for early signs of serious medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and cardiovascular disease during an exam. The very best defense is to see your optometrist a minimum of every two years and every year once you reach 65. Regular eye exams at any age allow for benchmarking of your vision and eye health which allows your optometrist to measure and keep track of often small but significant changes.
- Stop Smoking
The health risks associated with smoking are well documented. Smoking causes cellular changes, vascular constriction and enhances oxidative stress, a major factor in many diseases. It has been shown that smokers have an increased risk of glaucoma. The risk appears to remain for many decades after quitting so the best strategy to avoid glaucoma is to quit sooner rather than later.
- Maintain an Ideal Weight
Maintaining an ideal weight is beneficial for many reasons beyond eye health. Being overweight affects your heart, blood pressure and blood sugar control. Being overweight can also affect your vision. Cataract development is more likely in people that are overweight. The high blood pressure, higher cholesterol and insulin resistance associated with being overweight also combine to create the build-up of fluid inside the eye resulting in an increased risk of glaucoma.
- Wear Safety Eyewear
Prescription safety eyewear, with your correct prescription, is always prudent when hazards are present. Fair-haired blue-eyed people are at higher risk of developing cataracts, but the risk factor is real for everyone. Make sure your safety eyewear is right for the hazards. When it comes to protection from sunlight make sure your safety eyewear provides protection against both UV-A and UV-B wavelengths, and that the frames fully wrap around your face to protect from both direct and peripheral sun exposure.
- Get out and keep moving
Research shows that people who stay physically active, eat a balanced diet, and limit alcohol consumption experience less vision loss over the long haul. Get regular check-ups and maintaining your general health and is consistent with the best medical advice.
Eye health needs to be a lifelong priority. Understanding the risk factors and recognizing the signs and symptoms is important. Stay active, stay healthy and consult with your optometrist. Knowledge and awareness are key to long-term eye heath.
Glyn Jones is a partner at EHS Partnerships Ltd. in Calgary. He is a consulting occupational health and safety professional with 30 years of experience. He is a regular safety conference speaker in Canada, and he provides program design and instructional support to the University of New Brunswick’s OHS certificate and diploma programs.