Staying Focused on Aging Eyes

August is National Eye Exam Month and offers us the perfect opportunity to focus on (pun intended!) common eye concerns among older adults.

Vision loss can strike at any age. However, those over the age of 60 are at greater risk for certain eye diseases. Understanding your risks and knowing how to prevent or forestall vision loss is critical for maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle. Here’s what you need to know about the most common eye conditions among older adults and the steps you can take to keep your eyes healthy.

Cataracts. A cataract is a clouding of the lens in the eye that affects vision. Most cataracts are related to aging and are very common in older people. By age 80, more than half of all Americans either have a cataract or have had cataract surgery. A cataract can occur in either or both eyes. It cannot spread from one eye to the other.

The risk of developing cataracts increases with each decade of life starting around age 40. By age 75, half of white Americans have a cataract. By age 80, 70 percent of whites have cataract compared with 53 percent of blacks and 61 percent of Hispanic Americans. Other risk factors include diabetes, smoking, alcohol use, and prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light.

Cataract removal is one of the most common operations performed in the United States. It also is one of the safest and most effective types of surgery. In about 90 percent of cases, people who have cataract surgery have better vision afterward.

Glaucoma refers to a group of diseases that can damage the eye’s optic nerve and result in vision loss and blindness. It is one of the main causes of blindness in the United States. However, with early treatment, you can often protect your eyes against serious vision loss. Therefore, it is very important that it be diagnosed.

You can also help protect the vision of family members and friends who may be at higher risk for glaucoma. African Americans over age 40; everyone over age 60, especially Mexican Americans; and people with a family history of the disease. Encourage them to have a comprehensive dilated eye exam every 1 to 2 years. Remember that lowering eye pressure in the early stages of glaucoma slows the progression of the disease and helps save vision.

Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD) is a disease that blurs the sharp, central vision you need for “straight-ahead” activities such as reading, sewing, and driving. AMD affects the macula, the part of the eye that allows you to see fine detail. For some, the condition advances very slowly and vision loss may not be noticed for some time. In others, the progression is faster and may lead to a loss of vision in one or both eyes.

AMD is most likely to occur after age 60, but it can occur earlier. Other risk factors include smoking, family history, and race, with AMD more common among Caucasians than among Blacks or Hispanics.

As for prevention, AMD occurs less often in people who exercise, avoid smoking, and eat nutritious foods including green leafy vegetables and fish. If you already have AMD, adopting some of these habits may help you keep your vision longer.