Aging And Your Eyes

November 14, 2011

Man-with-glassesHave you been holding books or the newspaper at arm’s length so you can read it more clearly?  If you’re over 40, I bet you are. The truth of the matter is that once we approach our forties, our eyes have already begun changing – sometimes normal, sometimes not-so-normal. So how do you know if the vision changes you are experiencing are serious, or just a natural part of aging? Well, you can do so by learning how aging affects our eyes.

What Really Happens

As we get older, our pupils become smaller and our field of vision decreases. The lens also becomes more rigid. As a result, our ability to focus on objects both near and far becomes more difficult. Our vision also becomes less sharp. You probably have noticed this because it’s hard to read fine print. This usually starts to occur in our forties.

You might even have needed to get a pair of reading glasses lately or been told you need bifocals – all a natural part of aging. You probably have also noticed that you need more light to read clearly as you’ve gotten older.  I’ve noticed this when I’m in a nice restaurant. The restaurant is usually dimly lit, which can provide a nice atmosphere but makes it tough to read the menu or decipher the numbers on the bill when it arrives. This is normal because as you get older, you need more light to see clearly.

But if you get headaches or your eyes seem to get tired after reading small print, you may have presbyopia.  Presbyopia is the medical term for the loss of elasticity of the lens which results in loss of sharp focus for near objects, and it is a normal part of aging. 

Nearly 111 million people in the United States have presbyopia, and that number is supposed to grow to 123 million people in by 2020. Yet only 10% of this population knows that they have this disease.

You can help correct your vision with multifocal glasses or contact lenses to help see clearly at all distances. But it will take more than just a pair of glasses: Correcting presbyopia means your brain will have to adapt to various vision correction prescriptions. Multifocal contact lenses, like AIR OPTIX, are designed to help with all stages of presbyopia and may be a valuable option for those who prefer not to wear glasses. 

Common Problems

Many middle-aged patients come to see me about a common problem called “floaters.”  This refers to the experience of seeing spots or specks that float across the visual field. This can be very scary, especially the first time it occurs.  However, it’s usually normal. To understand floaters, it’s helpful to learn about the vitreous. The vitreous is a jelly-like substance that fills the body of the eye.  It’s attached to the retina, and is typically clear.  However, as we age, it becomes less jelly-like and more water-like.  Sometimes it even detaches from the retina. The floaters are actually little clumps of the jelly-type substance, which then cast shadows.  Again, this is usually normal.  However, if the onset of floaters coincides with a flash of light, or seem to be associated with any sudden physical weakness, see your doctor, as these symptoms can indicate a retinal detachment or even a stroke.

Have you been worried that you seem to have lost some of your ability to discern the difference between colors, or different shades of the same color? Maybe when you’re at a store and take your black sweater to the register, you suddenly realize that it’s actually blue. While we don’t become color-blind as we become older, our ability to distinguish greens and blues can be affected. This is because the lens of the eye begins to yellow with age. You may have even noticed this while watching television or looking at photos – you thought it was HD but now it doesn’t look so crisp! Issues with color does not happen until after age 50, and generally does not cause major problems.  Luckily, traffic lights are red, yellow and green and not blue, yellow and green!

Sudden vision loss is never normal at any age, and needs to be evaluated by a doctor immediately. Do not wait around thinking it might get better. If vision suddenly goes dark or suddenly blurry, get to the emergency room right away.

Eye pain and red eye also need to be discussed with a physician since they typically are symptoms of a disease. Just because you get older doesn’t mean you should have pain in the eye or your eyes should be red several days in a row - that is not normal.

 

Want to learn more about the aging process? Check out Is This Normal? The Essential Guide to Aging.

 

More on Vision Problems:

Vision Problems

Refractive Vision Problems

Color Vision Test

 

Photo Source: Thinkstock/Goodshot

 


John J. Whyte, MD, MPH is the Chief Medical Expert & Vice President for Continuing Medical Education where he develops, designs and delivers health programming.
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