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The Elder’s Eye: 3 Common Causes of Vision Loss in Older People

Dana Larsen
By Dana LarsenApril 4, 2012

Understanding common vision disorders of aging can help you discern when to recognize vision issues in both yourself and your senior family members.

Learn about three common culprits: age related macular degeneration (AMD), glaucoma and cataracts to discern the symptoms and find appropriate care.

elderly woman getting an eye exam

Vision Loss in Seniors

Vision loss is a common manifestation of aging. According to the American Association for the Blind, more than 6.5 million Americans over 65 have a severe visual impairment. The three most common causes of major vision loss among seniors are:

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  1. Macular degeneration
  2. Glaucoma
  3. Cataracts

These ailments have been called “silent stealers of sight” because they progress so gradually that they are frequently unnoticed until vision loss has become severe. As with many medical conditions, early detection can be key to effective treatment. By being aware of the signs of these disorders, and having frequent eye exams, older adults can spot these problems before they become too severe.

Age Related Macular Degeneration (AMD)

AMD is caused by progressive retinal damage. It can be a cruel, frustrating disorder. With AMD your peripheral vision remains intact, but like the shell-game gone wrong; whatever you try to focus on disappears before your very eyes. More than a third of seniors over age 75 have some sign of AMD.

Macular degeneration can present safety risks, particularly for seniors who live alone. Inability to read or recognize faces, activities that most of us take for granted, become impossibilities as macular degeneration develops. Driving, obviously, is out of the question. Taking the right medicine becomes a challenge. Falls can also occur when seniors overlook or misjudge obstacles.

While there is no cure for macular degeneration, there are medicines that can slow its progression. And fortunately, macular degeneration is not painful, does not lead to total blindness and does not cause other health problems. So seniors with macular degeneration are usually able to transition fairly easily to independent or assisted living communities, when necessary.

Glaucoma

Glaucoma involves increasing pressure in the eye cavity, leading to nerve damage, vision loss and sometimes pain. People with glaucoma experience tunnel vision, gradually losing their peripheral eyesight.

Treatment strategies exist, both surgical and pharmaceutical, that can slow the progression of associated vision loss and relieve discomfort, but this disorder also has no cure. Seniors are especially prone to glaucoma. According to the National Institute on Health (NIH), eight percent of people aged seventy and over have at least the beginning stages of the ailment.

While glaucoma affects vision differently than macular degeneration, it is also a disorder that can hinder a senior’s ability to live independently, particularly when very severe.

Cataracts

A cataract is a clouding of the eye’s lens by clumps of naturally occurring protein, and is the leading cause of blindness worldwide. People of all ages can develop cataracts, but they are most common among elderly people. More than half of people over 80 have developed cataracts.

Cataracts can often be detected by only a superficial inspection of the eye, and appear as discoloration over the iris or pupil. The larger the cataract, the more apparent it is. Cataracts tend to cause a blurring of vision, but can also impair ability to see colors as the cataract overlays the lens like a filter on a camera. While not painful, cataracts can progress to near total blindness, hindering a senior’s ability to live independently.  For mild cataracts, medicated eye drops are frequently used, but when a cataract begins to cause problems with day to day living, surgery to remove the cataract is often recommended.

Finding the Right Care

The causes of these conditions are not completely understood, but evidence suggests that for each of these disorders, both lifestyle and genetic factors are at play. Whatever the causes, their results are clear: vision loss gets worse and worse if untreated.

For this reason, anyone over 65 should have an eye exam annually, even if they are not complaining of vision loss.

Vision loss is a common reason for families to contact us about local care options. Our Senior Living Advisors have extensive experience helping families of elders find the right care. Contact us for more information.

Vision disorder examples (from left to right): Normal Vision, Macular Degeneration, Glaucoma and Cataracts Images, courtesy of the National Institute of Health

About the Author

Jeff Anderson has worked has in the senior living industry for several years, primarily as a family advisor. He also has personal experience in a caregiving role with his wonderful grandmother, Lola.

Have you or a loved one experienced vision loss? When did you begin to seek out care? Share your story in the comments below.

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Dana Larsen
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