Squinting a bit more to see the fine print in the newspaper or the itty-bitty font on your phone? As you age, it's natural to notice variations in your vision. But while some shifts in sight are normal, others may be cause for concern.
Here, Usiwoma Abugo, MD, clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology and assistant professor of ophthalmology at Eastern Virginia Medical School, shares the most common vision changes to keep an eye out for as you grow older and the best strategies to safeguard your sight into your advancing years.
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1. Difficulty Seeing Up Close
Once you approach middle age, you might find that reading labels or seeing other things up close is growing challenging.
That's because presbyopia, more commonly known as farsightedness, becomes increasingly common after the age of 40, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).
Here's why: "The lens [in your eye], which is like a clear sphere, loses its flexibility with time," Dr. Abugo says. "This means that it's not able to move and bring objects that we see into focus on the retina in the back of the eye," she explains.
In other words, it becomes harder for us to see or read things up close. Luckily, wearing reading glasses can be a big help.
Age often comes with a common vision complaint called cataracts (when the lens inside your eye turns cloudy), Dr. Abugo says. Indeed, approximately half of American adults above the age of 75 develop cataracts, according to the AAO.
Here's what happens: When you're born, your lens is typically clear, but as you age, the proteins in your lens break down, making your vision blurry, hazy or less colorful, per the AAO.
"If you suspect you have cataracts, you should contact your eye doctor," Dr. Abugo says.
3. Light Sensitivity
Noticing that lights seem a little intense? If you're driving at night and the oncoming car's headlights appear blindingly bright, you might be experiencing an increased light sensitivity, which can happen in aging adults.
Sensitivity to light can come from the surface of the eye, like in dry eye (more on this later), or from changes inside the eye such as cataracts, Dr. Abugo says.
For example: "Cataracts distort the rays of light that touch the lens, and this can result in sensitivity or glare with bright light," she explains.
4. Color Perception Problems
Colors seem less vibrant? Trouble distinguishing between certain color shades?
No, you're not imagining things. "Color vision can deteriorate as one ages," Dr. Abugo says. This is due to several reasons, including (but not limited to) the following issues, she says:
- Reduced size of your pupil (the opening in the colored part of the eye that lets light in)
- Yellowing or clouding of the lens in the eye (cataracts)
- Decrease in the sensitivity of the visual pathways
With age, "there's also an increased prevalence of eye disease such as glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration and diabetic eye disease, which can produce blue-yellow color vision changes," Dr. Abugo adds.
5. Dry Eye
Dry eye — an eye condition that causes scratchy, stingy, sensitive eyes — is another unpleasant peeper-related side effect of older age. In fact, "dry eye prevalence increases every five years after the age of 50," Dr. Abugo says.
"With dry eyes, our tear glands either do not produce enough tears or the quality of the tears is abnormal," Dr. Abugo says. "This change occurs because, with time, our tear glands can develop fibrosis (scarring) and atrophy (decrease in size)," she explains.
What's more, "your eyelids can also play a role in this process," Dr. Abugo adds. "The eyelid can become laxer with age, and this contributes to not being able to protect the eye and retain tears as the eyelid is designed to do," she says.
6. Difficulty Seeing at Night
You might also find that you're straining to see at night. If your eyes take longer to adjust and focus in the dark, it's likely because your eye's rod cells, which play an important role in low light vision, deteriorate with age, according to the AAO.
If you’re noticing that it’s particularly difficult to see when it’s dark at night, you may consider limiting your driving to daylight hours to be safe, per the AAO.
7. Floaters and Flashers
Seeing floaters (tiny spots or specks floating across your field of vision) becomes more common as we get older.
That's because the vitreous — the gel-like fluid in the middle of the eye — can thicken or shrivel as we age, and when this occurs, teeny gel clusters may form, leading to floaters, according to the AAO.
Similarly, seeing sporadic flashes of light is also more common with aging eyes. Once again, the vitreous is involved: These flashes happen when the jelly-like substance scrapes or tugs on the retina, per the AAO. If flashes of light suddenly appear, talk to your eye doctor immediately, as this could be a sign of a torn retina, according to the University of Michigan Health.
While floaters and flashers aren't always a cause for concern, you should still discuss them with your ophthalmologist to rule out more serious eye problems.
8. Risk for Eye Disease
Just like your risk for certain health conditions increases with age, so do your odds of developing some eye diseases.
Age-related macular degeneration (ARMD) — a disorder that affects your central vision — becomes more prevalent in people over 55, and it's the leading cause of legal blindness in the developed world, Dr. Abugo says.
Similarly, glaucoma (a disease that damages the optic nerve) and diabetic retinopathy (when high blood sugar levels damage blood vessels in the retina) can cause vision loss, and both are more common in seniors, according to the AAO.
How to Maintain Eye Health as You Age
While certain aspects of aging are beyond our control, there are plenty of things we can do to help keep our peepers in tip-top shape as we approach our golden years.
1. Get Regular Eye Exams
The best way to protect your eyes from vision loss is through proper prevention. This means seeing your eye doctor for yearly eye exams, especially when you reach the age of 65, per the AAO. These checkups can help catch and treat any early problems before they become bigger issues that can compromise your vision.
2. Stop Smoking
Not only does puffing increase your probability for many types of cancers, but it's also associated with the development of ARMD, Dr. Abugo says. So, if you quit smoking, you can substantially reduce your risk.
3. Maintain Normal Blood Pressure
High blood pressure is also a risk factor for ARMD, Dr. Abugo says. So, keeping your blood pressure in check through diet and exercise can help prevent these serious eye problems as well as protect you from developing heart disease and stroke.
4. Wear Sunglasses
"Most of us use sunshades to help ease the discomfort of bright lights and to improve our vision in bright light conditions, but many of us don't realize that it can actually help slow down the formation of cataracts, a common age-related visual change," Dr. Abugo says.
While sunshine can feel great on our skin (and helps our bodies produce vitamin D), it can also be harmful to your eyes. Indeed, research has shown that sunlight can cause oxidative damage (decreasing the amount of oxygen) in the lens and, over time, this exposure to UVA and UVB rays can lead to cataracts, Dr. Abugo says.
All this is to say, the AAO recommends wearing sunglasses with both UVA and UVB protection and a big, brimmed hat to safeguard your eyes from the sun.
5. Eat for Eye Health
What you put on your plate can help protect your aging eyes as well.
Eating your leafy greens can help prevent many forms of disease, including eye-related disorders like ARMD, Dr. Abugo says. Indeed, research has demonstrated that the antioxidants vitamin C, zeaxanthin, vitamin E and dietary zinc may be protective against the harmful effects of blue light, which is associated with an increased risk of AMRD, she says.
To get ample amounts of antioxidants, aim to eat the colors of the rainbow, Dr. Abugo says:
- Green (spinach, collard greens, kale, broccoli, asparagus, avocado)
- Red (bell peppers, strawberries, tomatoes)
- Orange/yellow (oranges, grapefruit, lemon, mango, pumpkin)
For zinc, look to foods like legumes, whole grains, shellfish, oysters, crab and lobster, Dr. Abugo says.
And speaking of seafood, you may also want to add fatty fish to your weekly diet plan. "Eating fish at least twice a week is associated with reduced incidence of early and late ARMD," Dr. Abugo says.
This could be in part because omega-3 oils seem to improve dry eye symptoms for some people, as they appear to help reduce inflammation and enhance the function of the meibomian glands (that generate the oily layer of tears), according to the AAO.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.