Eye care for seniors
Are you doing everything you can to protect your vision?
As people get older, changes in eyesight are common. Starting in our 40s, we might notice that our eyes feel drier, colours look less vibrant or it’s harder to read small print, according to the Canadian Association of Optometrists.
Not all vision changes are a normal part of aging, however. We can take steps to protect our eyesight and reduce the risk of certain eye conditions. Start by seeing your optometrist annually for a comprehensive eye exam. He or she will check for signs and symptoms of these and other conditions:
Cataracts form when the clear lenses of the eye become cloudy, causing vision to become blurry, hazy or foggy. Cataracts also cause decreased contrast sensitivity, affecting a person’s ability to drive at night.
Wearing UV-blocking sunglasses and eating a diet rich in antioxidants can slow cataract growth, but there’s no way to prevent them entirely. In fact, they’re so common that they’re considered a normal part of aging, says Dr. Margaret Penny, an optometrist in private practice in Calgary for nearly 40 years. “We all get cataracts if we live long enough.”
Cataracts are removed with a simple procedure that replaces the lenses with implants. “People go from not seeing to seeing the same day,” says Dr. Penny. The surgery takes about 15 to 30 minutes per eye, with a few days or weeks between the first and second procedures.
Glaucoma is a group of diseases that affect the optic nerve. The most common, primary open angle glaucoma, causes fluid build-up and increased pressure in the eye. People usually don’t know they have it – the condition is painless, and vision isn’t affected until the disease is advanced. By then, the damage may be irreversible; if not treated, glaucoma can lead to blindness.
The causes of glaucoma are not well understood, but it’s believed that age, family history, medical conditions (such as diabetes and heart disease), corticosteroid use and prior eye injuries are risk factors.
At your annual eye exam, your optometrist will check the pressure in your eye. If glaucoma is detected, treatment depends on its severity, says Dr. Penny. “The person needs to be seen by an optometrist as well as an ophthalmologist who specializes in glaucoma. Treatment involves medicated drops, and if they become ineffective, there’s a laser procedure and different types of surgeries.”
Age-related macular degeneration
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of blindness in adults over 55 in North America. It affects the macula, which is the centre of the retina, causing vision to grow blurry in the middle. “There are two types of macular degeneration, dry and wet. Both cause the vision to become blurry or wavy, or like parts of the picture might be missing or dark,” explains Dr. Penny. “The dry type is more common, and it’s treated with antioxidant vitamins and lutein. The wet type, which causes blood vessels to grow into the macula area, is treated with injections.”
People at higher risk of AMD include smokers, seniors, people with a family history of the disease, and those who have had a lot of exposure to ultraviolet rays and blue light from digital devices such as computers and phones. Some health conditions, including high blood pressure and arteriosclerosis, are linked to AMD.
To help prevent AMD, Dr. Penny recommends wearing sunglasses that block UV light, and adding a blue-light filter to glasses for computer use. “Make sure you eat well and exercise regularly – anything that affects heart and blood vessels will affect macular degeneration. Healthy foods are all the antioxidant-rich foods – brightly coloured fruits and vegetables like red apples, red grapes, pomegranates, carrots, squash and leafy greens.”
“Dry eyes are very common as we get older because our glands don’t secrete as many tears,” says Dr. Penny. “For women, dry eyes can happen with changes in hormones. A dry climate also has an impact, and different diseases also cause dry eyes, such as the autoimmune disease Sjögren’s syndrome.”
Dr. Penny says dry eyes can be treated “both from the outside in and inside out.” Topical treatments include eye drops, gels and ointments that add moisture to the eyes. You can also clean your eyelids with special wipes. Your optometrist may suggest other treatments to stimulate the glands to produce tears. From the inside out, you can try omega-3 and essential fatty acid supplements, such as fish oil capsules. (Your optometrist or ophthalmologist may prescribe professional-grade versions.)
“Humidifiers help, definitely, and so does drinking lots of water. Caffeine is a natural diuretic, so cut down on tea, coffee and cola, and drink decaf instead. Some herbal teas, like chamomile, are also diuretics,” says Dr. Penny. If you take diuretic medications (for example, to manage blood pressure), increase your water consumption.
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