Vision Loss: A Normal Part of Aging, or Something More?

When you enter your 40s, 50s and 60s, you may begin to notice that it becomes more difficult to read small print. You may find yourself squinting to read books you easily read when younger. It may become difficult to decipher the dosage instructions on a box of medication. Difficulty seeing clearly when reading and other close work is one of the most common problems adults develop between the ages of 41 and 60, according to the American Optometric Association.

Some vision loss is a normal part of aging

Some vision loss is actually a normal change in the eye’s ability to focus which occurs with age. Known as presbyopia, this condition gradually worsens over time. There are other common vision challenges that occur with age as well, including:

  • needing more light to see clearly
  • problems with glare from vehicle headlights or sun reflecting from windshields or pavement
  • changes in color perception, making it more difficult to tell the difference between certain shades
  • reduced tear production

Cataracts, considered an aging-related disease of the eye, is such a common condition among seniors that many experts consider cataracts a normal part of aging. According to a report by the CDC, more than half of all people age 65 and older have cataracts. Normal changes in vision can often be corrected with eye glasses, contact lenses, or laser eye surgery, or in the case of cataracts, with cataract surgery.

When vision loss becomes a problem

However, substantial vision loss is one of the most common causes of elderly losing their independence. The CDC reports that 1.8 million non-institutionalized elderly people in the U.S. report some difficulties with activities of daily living at least in part due to visual impairment. The most common danger caused by visual impairment is an increased risk of falls and fractures, leading to hospitalization, nursing home placement, disability or even premature death.

To put it in perspective, 92 percent of adults age 70 and older wear prescription lenses. Eighteen percent also use a magnifying glass for reading and other close work. The number of seniors who have difficulty seeing clearly even with corrective measures increases with age, ranging from 14 percent among seniors aged 70 to 74, up to 32 percent among adults age 85 and older.

Visual symptoms can be warning signs of serious underlying conditions

Vision changes in middle age and beyond can also be a warning sign of a more serious underlying condition. The American Optometric Association points out several visual symptoms that can indicate a more serious condition:

  • Vision that fluctuates – If the clarity of your vision fluctuates from day to day, this can be a sign of hypertension (high blood pressure).
  • Floaters and flashes – Seeing floaters from time to time is actually normal; these are typically shadowy images of particles that float in the fluid that fills the inside of the eye. However, if you suddenly see more floaters than normal, and they are accompanied by bright, flashing lights, it could be an indication of retinal detachment (a tear of the retina).
  • Loss of peripheral vision – A loss of peripheral vision, or side vision, can be a warning sign of glaucoma. Glaucoma is a disease in which the optic nerve becomes damaged and no longer transmits visual images to the brain. Unfortunately, symptoms often don’t appear until damage to your vision has already occurred.
  • Distorted vision – Do straight lines now seem warped or wavy? Is there a blind spot in the middle of your visual field? This can be a sign of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a disease of the macula, a part of the eye’s retina that’s responsible for the central visual field, where visual acuity is typically sharpest.

How to cope with loss of vision

Some diseases of the eye are treatable, like some normal vision loss can be corrected with corrective lenses or surgery. However, other diseases of the eye cause permanent damage that is not correctable by corrective or surgical procedures. Whether your vision loss is correctable or not, there are some general tips and strategies you can use to decrease your risk of falls, fractures and other accidents as a result of poor vision in your day-to-day life.

  • Have regular eye exams – A regular visit to your optometrist can pinpoint problems like glaucoma and other diseases of the eye before you begin having symptoms that can lead to permanent vision loss.
  • Keep your environment well-lit – If you have trouble seeing in dim lighting, make sure your home has ample lighting to illuminate the areas where you spend the most time, as well as in difficult-to-navigate areas, such as stairs and hallways.
  • Remove clutter –For seniors with visual impairment, it can be difficult to discern objects such as cords that extend across a room or hallway or a throw rug with a turned-up edge. These hazards can easily lead to dangerous falls. Keep your home as clutter-free as possible, removing hazards and spacing out furniture to allow for ample walking room.
  • Wear sunglasses in bright sunlight – Ultraviolet light can lead to the development of cataracts, so protect your eyes when you’re out enjoying the sunshine.
  • Mark the edge of stairs with brightly-colored tape – If navigating stairs proves especially challenging, marking the edges with brightly-colored tape makes it easier to discern individual steps to avoid trips and falls. In fact, contrasting colors are helpful visual aids when it comes to things like doors and door frames, plates and place mats, and other everyday objects that may not be easy to differentiate from the objects next to or behind them.
  • Decide when to give up the keys – If your vision loss is severe and not correctable with corrective lenses or other measures, it may be time to give up driving for your own safety and the safety of others. Talk with your optometrist, your primary physician, and your family to determine when it’s time to hang up the keys.

While some vision loss is considered a normal part of aging, you should be mindful of warning signs that could indicate a more serious problem. Having a regular eye exam is the best way to pinpoint these problems before they become major issues. Even with substantial vision impairment, it’s possible for many seniors to live happy, independent lives with the right support and safety precautions.

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