Age-proof your eyes | by Jan Sheehan

Posted on Wed, Jul 4, 2012

The eyes are the windows to the world. But as you age, your eyes change. Some of these changes can threaten your vision. Sight-stealing eye problems affect one in six adults over age 45, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AOA). The AOA estimates the number of people suffering from low vision or blindness will nearly double by the year 2020. “Of the five senses, surveys show that sight is the one people fear losing the most,” says Dr. Karen Kadler, an ophthalmologist (eye MD) at Cherry Creek Eye Center, which is affiliated with Rose Medical Center in Denver. “Unfortunately, eye diseases that can lead to loss of sight will be prevalent in the baby boomer population in the coming years.” The good news is that taking vision-protecting steps during your boomer years can help prevent loss of vision down the road. Kadler offers the following eye-opening primer on age-proofing your eyes.

CATARACTS are cloudy areas covering the eye lens. They’re the leading cause of blindness in the U.S. People with cataracts see as if looking through a waterfall. Other symptoms include sensitivity to light or yellowing of colors, poor night vision and halos around lights. “Most people get some cataract formation with age, but exposure to the sun increases the risk of developing a cataract that can interfere with your vision,” Kadler says. Wearing sunglasses with 100 percent UV protection will help protect your eyes from developing cataracts. Some studies have shown eating a diet rich in fruits and veggies may help reduce the risk of cataracts. A 2011 study published in the “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition” found that vegetarians were less likely to develop cataracts that meat eaters. Fortunately, cataracts are the most treatable of all age-related eye diseases. Treatment involves surgery to remove cloudy areas of your eye lens and implant an artificial lens. It’s a very successful treatment. “We can restore your sight to 20/20 vision with today’s cataract surgery,” Kadler says. “And the newest type of cataract surgery can give you back your near and far vision, so you may actually see better than before you developed cataracts.” The surgery is performed as an out-patient procedure; recovery at home takes one to two days.

MACULAR DEGENERATION Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of irreversible vision loss in the U.S. Deterioration occurs in the macula, the central part of the retina, leading to blurring of central vision, while peripheral vision is unaffected. “It usually doesn’t lead to total blindness, but it can severely restrict activities requiring central vision, such as reading and driving,” Kadler says. Incidence is highest among Caucasian women over age 65. A healthy lifestyle is the best way to keep AMD at bay. High blood pressure, smoking and being overweight increase the risk. “Lifestyle modifications that help your health in general also reduce the risk of macular degeneration,” Kadler says. Exercise, in particular, is important. Some studies show moderate exercise, like walking, can reduce the risk of AMD by up to 70 percent. Treatment involves high doses of eye-healthy vitamins, including lutein and zeaxanthin, beta-carotene, and vitamins C and E. In one type known as wet macular degeneration, eye injections may be helpful, Kadler says. Laser surgery has also been used to treat AMD. Treatment of AMD is challenging, however, so prevention is your best weapon.

GLAUCOMA is the third most common cause of age-related vision loss and the leading cause of blindness among African-Americans. They’re 6 to 8 times more likely to develop glaucoma than Whites and 15 times more likely to get it after age 50, according to the AOA. People with a family risk of glaucoma are also at a much higher risk than other people. The disease is caused by increasing pressure within the eyeball, which builds up because fluids aren’t able to drain normally. Getting your eyes checked regularly is crucial for catching glaucoma at its treatable stages because most people have no early symptoms or pain. “By the time symptoms appear, the disease may have caused permanent, irreversible damage,” Kadler says. High blood pressure and diabetes are associated with glaucoma, so controlling your blood pressure and blood sugar levels may head off this vision thief.  If detected early, glaucoma can usually be controlled with prescription eye drops that cause the eye to make less fluid or help drain fluid from the eye, although they can have side effects of drowsiness, blurry vision, or headaches. Oral medications, laser therapy or surgery to reduce pressure by draining fluid from the eyes are other treatment options.

DIABETIC RETINOPATHY is the most common and most serious eye complication of diabetes. As boomers age, the incidence of type 2 diabetes, which is linked to excess weight, is expected to soar, increasing the risk of debilitating complications, including diabetic retinopathy. “It affects about one-third of diabetics, and 5 percent end up losing their sight,” Kadler says. Just diagnosed with diabetes? Make an appointment with an eye specialist immediately. “It’s common to have diabetes for some time before being diagnosed with it, and eye damage may have already started,” Kadler notes. Diabetic retinopathy causes abnormal blood vessels to grow across the retina, damaging and sometimes permanently destroying vision. Managing your diabetes is the best way to prevent diabetic retinopathy. “And if you have diabetes, you should have an eye exam every year to screen for retinopathy, even if you have no vision symptoms,” Kadler recommends. Early detection and treatment of diabetic retinopathy can often prevent blindness.

PRESBYOPIA literally means “aging eye.” All boomers will have to deal with this age-related vision condition as they get older. “Presbyopia affects 100 percent of seniors,” Kadler says. You may start noticing trouble reading fine print on restaurant menus as early as age 40, and it typically worsens as you get older. It’s thought to be caused by loss of elasticity in the lens of the eye. Fortunately, presbyopia doesn’t cause significant vision loss, and it’s easily correctible with inexpensive reading glasses or bifocals. Cataract surgery will correct presbyopia and give you 20/20 vision, even for fine print, Kadler notes. While surgery to specifically do away presbyopia in the absence of cataracts isn’t yet available in the United States, some countries already offer this new surgical option. So put on your reading glasses and keep your eyes peeled for further developments! This age-related condition may be curable in the future.

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