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Is Ignoring Your Eye Health More Harmful Than Being Overweight?

Sarah Stevenson
By Sarah StevensonJanuary 28, 2014
Is Ignoring Your Eye Health More Harmful Than Being Overweight

Don’t turn a blind eye to your loved ones’ visual health – failing eyesight contributes to falls and injuries, but you can help prevent senior eye problems.

Is Ignoring Your Eye Health More Harmful Than Being Overweight

Most of us will experience some decline in vision as we age. Using reading glasses and brighter lights solves the problem for some people, but for others, age-related vision loss is due to a more serious condition such as glaucoma. Regardless of its cause, failing eyesight can lead to poorer physical and mental health, as well as lowered quality of life — and it can increase the risk of falls, which are the number one cause of injuries for adults over 65, reports the CDC. In fact, older adults have far more visual problems than weight problems, even though obesity is one of our society’s most severe and growing dangers. About 13 million seniors are obese, while over 15 million have cataracts and 9 million have age-related macular degeneration (CDC).

Even more interesting, recent research is discovering that overweight seniors may actually live longer, and have a lower risk of death compared to those who are normal weight or underweight. A 2005 study in Obesity reported that overweight Canadian adults were 17% less likely to die than adults of normal weight, and a 2007 study by the CDC and National Cancer Institute “found that overweight adults had a slightly lower risk of death than their normal-weight peers, largely because they were less likely to die from a variety of diseases, including Alzheimer’s, infections and lung disease” (Time.com). A more recent 2010 study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society supported these results, and noted that being sedentary also increased the risk of death. Obese adults, meanwhile, had the same mortality risk as those of normal weight. By comparison, many studies find a higher risk of mortality in seniors with a loss of visual acuity, like this 2005 study in Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science, which found that women with vision loss had a higher risk of dying.

The Dangers of Vision Loss

One out of three adults aged 65 or older falls each year, reports the CDC, and according to the American Foundation for the Blind, those with vision loss have nearly twice the likelihood of experiencing multiple falls as those with normal vision. They are also at risk for developing depression, anxiety, or social withdrawal due to their vision loss. In addition, says a CDC report, “Vision loss compromises people’s quality of life because it reduces their capacity to read, drive a car, watch television, or keep personal accounts. Often, it isolates older people and keeps them from friends and family.”

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The situation is even worse when the vision impairment cannot be reversed. Irreversible vision loss, which occurs with glaucoma, affects over a million seniors, reports an article in American Family Physician—a statistic we should remember this January in light of Glaucoma Awareness Month. Regular eye exams and an awareness of the risks and symptoms of vision loss are critical to senior eye care.

“Over the years, I’ve seen so many patients who had clear risk factors for glaucoma, but didn’t know of their risks until it was too late,” said Andrew Iwach, M.D., glaucoma specialist and clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. “It’s truly a shame to think how different their lives would be if they had only known of these risks and taken action to have a comprehensive eye exam sooner. It’s crucial that people remember that once vision is lost to glaucoma, it cannot be restored.”

Failing Eyesight: Causes, Symptoms and Prevention

The four most common causes of vision loss in the elderly are macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataracts, and diabetic retinopathy. While the specific symptoms of each one may differ, there are a few telltale signs that your loved one may be suffering from impaired vision. According to EyeCare America, your loved one should get an eye exam if he or she exhibits the following signs:

  • Bumping into or knocking over objects
  • Stepping hesitantly
  • Squinting or tilting the head when trying to focus
  • Missing objects when reaching
  • Discontinuing everyday activities such as reading and writing

Of course, there is no bad time to get an eye exam. Even if you are healthy, adults over 40 should get an eye exam in order to establish a baseline for ongoing visual health, says the American Academy of Ophthalmology. It’s a critical first step for the prevention of vision loss through glaucoma and other age-related conditions. A healthy diet and lifestyle can also help decrease the risk of visual deterioration.

“Sight problems should not be ignored at any age, but particularly in seniors, as problems are more common in this group of patients,” said Richard P. Mills, M.D., MPH, chairman for EyeCare America. “The earlier a patient seeks medical diagnosis and treatment, the greater the chances for saving and recovering one’s vision, which contributes to overall health and happiness.”

Is visual impairment is a bigger problem for your loved ones than overeating or obesity? How have you coped with failing eyesight in yourself or a family member? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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Sarah Stevenson
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Sarah Stevenson

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