Are seniors more likely to suffer age-related vision problems in the winter? What are the most important eye health symptoms to watch out for?
Although we could all benefit from taking more time to care for our vision, eye health is an especially important issue for seniors. Learn more about the warning signs of age-related vision problems.
“In the years after you turn 60,” states the American Optometric Association, “a number of eye diseases may develop that can change your vision permanently. The earlier these problems are detected and treated, the more likely you can retain good vision.”
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It’s true that age-related vision problems, including cataracts and glaucoma, become much more common as we get older. So do less severe eye health issues like conjunctivitis and dry eyes. Unfortunately, during the winter months, dry eyes can be commonplace due to the recirculation of air from the heater.
How can you tell if it’s a simple case of dry eye or a symptom of visual disease? First, familiarize yourself with the most common senior eye problems. Most of all, though:
“Make sure your eyes are checked every year,” says Lisa Weiss, OD, MEd, FCOVD, a doctor of optometry with the California Optometric Association. Early detection, she says, is the best way to prevent disease and minimize vision loss.
Failing vision in seniors can lead to a host of other complications: inability to drive, increased risk of falls, less mobility, loss of independence, social withdrawal — and those in turn can cause anxiety and depression. Dr. Weiss also brings up the less obvious, but no less distressing issue of being less able to do crosswords or enjoy other hobbies that depend on vision. “You can’t do the things that you like, and it can become very, very difficult,” she says.
Dr. Weiss cites five age-related vision problems that are common in seniors and can cause failing vision:
AMD is the leading cause of severe vision loss in those over 50, and results in the loss of central vision. Symptoms include the gradual loss of ability to see objects clearly; distortion of objects and shapes; loss of clear color vision, and a dark or empty area in the center of vision.
This is an inflammation or infection of the eyelid, and it can lead to similar symptoms to dry eye. Symptoms include irritated, itchy eyelids and the formation of dandruff-like scales on the eyelashes. Though it’s uncomfortable, it’s not usually contagious and doesn’t generally lead to vision damage.
A cataract is a cloudy or opaque area in the lens of the eye that can interfere with vision. They are most common in older adults, and they are the most common cause of blindness. According to Prevent Blindness America, about 24.5 million U.S. adults over 40 have cataracts. Symptoms include blurred or hazy vision, increased difficulty seeing at night, increased sensitivity to glare and reduced intensity of colors.
The second-leading cause of blindness in the U.S., glaucoma is actually a group of eye disorders. These disorders cause progressive damage to the optic nerve, ultimately resulting in loss of vision. It is most common in people over age 40. The AOA recommends an annual eye exam for anyone at high risk for glaucoma: older adults, especially African-Americans and those with a family history of glaucoma.
This includes conditions such as diabetic retinopathy, in which people with diabetes suffer damage to the blood vessels in the retina. Other health issues can cause eye problems, too, like arthritis and high blood pressure. Since conditions like these are more common in the elderly, monitoring overall health becomes critically important.
In the winter, seniors can be more likely to suffer from certain eye problems. The big one is dry eye. Says the AOA:
“The majority of people over age 65 experience some symptoms of dry eyes,” particularly elderly women. Those symptoms include blurry vision, burning, itching, tearing and watering.
The best thing to do is see a doctor as soon as possible and get it treated early: When dry eye is advanced, it becomes more difficult to manage.
Often, dry eye is just a natural part of aging: “Our eyelids become looser and fall away from the eyeball, and that can cause dry eye,” says Dr. Weiss. Dr. Weiss continues, “If someone is outdoors a lot and the weather is dry, or if they’re indoors a lot in a recirculated air environment, their eyes can be dry also.” That includes being inside with the heater on. Unfortunately, dry eye can also be a side effect of many medications, including allergies, arthritis and treatment for inflammatory disease.
Another eye disease that can be more common in the winter is conjunctivitis or pinkeye. “If people are confined in indoor spaces or in close quarters,” says Dr. Weiss — think senior communities — “then things that are highly contagious like pinkeye can spread.” Practicing good hygiene is important in this case.
Besides the advice for preventing specific eye diseases like pinkeye, there are general strategies that caregivers and seniors should keep in mind for minimizing the possibility of vision problems. Number one is maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
“A lot of people don’t realize that the eyes are connected to the rest of the body. By keeping your whole body healthy, it goes a long way toward preserving your vision,” advises Dr. Weiss.
Seniors can keep healthy by eating a nutritious diet with plenty of leafy green vegetables and keeping blood pressure and diabetes under control. Those in a higher risk group for vision problems may want to consider antioxidant supplements and eye health vitamins — the ones suggested by the California Optometric Association include lutein and zeaxanthin, essential fatty acids, vitamins C and E, and zinc.
For those who already have vision loss, low-vision aids and devices can help, like CCTV and magnifiers. Your local optometrist, says Dr. Weiss, can refer you to a low vision specialist who can help you figure out what you need.
Most of all, though, “Everyone needs a comprehensive eye exam every year.” California residents can visit: www.eyehelp.org to find a COA optometrist, and anyone at all can visit the American Optometry Association’s website to find a local doctor or their state optometric association.
Has your loved one experienced symptoms of dry eye? What tips do you have for those concerned with age-related vision changes? We would love to hear your stories and suggestions in the comments below.