How Vision Changes as You Age
Most of us know our looks change as we get older, but aging involves much more than getting a few gray hairs. As we age, every part of our body changes, including our eyes. Some of these changes can cause significant vision issues if they aren’t controlled. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of people with blindness or visual impairment is estimated to double over the next 10 years due to the aging population. While aging naturally causes eye changes over time, it doesn’t have to lead to vision loss. You can take steps to protect your eyes and decrease your risk of serious age-related eye diseases.
In this article, we’ll explore specific age-related eye changes and ways to protect your vision over the years.
When Do Age-Related Vision Changes Occur?
According to the American Optometric Association, noticeable vision changes begin to develop between 40 and 60 for many adults. These changes can vary greatly from one person to the next. Refractive errors or accidental injuries cause most vision problems in people under the age of 40. However, people can experience vision changes at any age, depending on certain factors.
For example, anyone with diabetes can experience diabetic retinopathy — one of the leading causes of blindness in American adults — though the risk increases the longer someone has diabetes. It’s also worth noting that the eye lens can begin to harden for some people in their 20s, but it can take decades to produce noticeable changes.
How Vision Changes With Age
As you age, your eyes’ lenses, called crystalline lenses, lose elasticity. The crystalline lens is a transparent, curved structure located behind the iris. Its job is to change shape and focus light onto the retina to send visual information to the brain. The crystalline lens becomes less flexible over the years and causes common vision changes. Other parts of your eyes, such as the macula, optic nerve, and pupil, also often change with age and cause vision problems. Here’s what you’ll want to look out for in every decade:
After you reach your 40s, you may not be able to see objects clearly up close. For example, a newspaper might appear blurry, especially under dim light, unless you hold it farther away from your eyes. This condition, called presbyopia, is due to the crystalline lens becoming less elastic.
Presbyopia is a normal part of aging, and nothing can be done to keep your eyes’ lenses from becoming more rigid over time. The condition continues to worsen usually until people reach their mid-60s.
You may be able to cope with presbyopia by holding objects further away from your eyes first, but eventually, you’ll need some assistance. If you do not have any other vision problems, you may only need a pair of reading glasses.
Otherwise, you can correct the condition with progressive lenses, contact lenses or surgery. If left untreated, presbyopia can cause headaches and eye strain.
It’s also during your 40s that the proteins in your eyes’ lenses begin to break down and form clumps, creating cataracts. Cataracts typically develop slowly and do not impact vision until they are large.
Lastly, it’s recommended people in their 40s get an eye exam every two years to screen for glaucoma. Glaucoma is a progressive eye disorder that damages the eye’s optic nerve and can lead to vision loss. Glaucoma doesn’t show symptoms until the disease reaches an advanced stage, but it’s easier to control if caught early.
In your 50s, as presbyopia worsens, you may need to update your glasses or contact prescription more frequently. Your risk for cataracts, glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration (AMD) also increases during this time.
AMD is a progressive disease that causes the macula — a small but critical area in the center of your eye’s retina — to deteriorate over time. In developed countries, AMD is the leading cause of severe vision loss and blindness in people over 50 years of age, affecting more individuals than glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy combined.
There are two forms of AMD, called dry AMD and wet AMD. Dry AMD is the most common form and is when tiny deposits called drusen grow under the retina. Dry AMD gradually causes central vision loss. Wet AMD is less common but causes vision loss faster than the dry form. Wet AMD occurs when blood vessels form under the retina and lead to scarring of the macula.
Other than problems with dark adaptation — increased difficulty of seeing at night — AMD rarely produces symptoms in its early stages. But, since early detection and treatment are key to slowing the disease’s progression, people in their 50s should get their dark adaptation function tested as part of their annual eye exam.
Aging naturally causes the muscles that control pupil size to weaken. During your 60s, your pupils become smaller, causing the retina to receive less light. For this reason, people in their 60s need three times more light to read comfortably than younger individuals.
Also during this decade, the risk for age-related diseases continues to increase. To detect eye problems early and decrease the risk of vision loss, the American Optometric Association recommends everyone over the age of 65 get an eye exam annually.
Finally, you may notice floaters more frequently due to normal age-related changes in your 60s. Floaters are tiny black or gray spots that move around in your field of vision. As you get older, the gel-like fluid in your eyes called the vitreous can shrink or thicken and form clumps, casting shadows on your retina. Floaters are the tiny shadows you see.
70s and Beyond
Older adults may begin to notice cataract symptoms. According to the National Eye Institute, cataracts are very common in older people. More than half of Americans over age 80 either have cataracts or have had surgery to remove cataracts. As mentioned earlier, cataracts can start to develop in someone’s 40s but do not typically affect vision until later on. Once symptoms show, the person may experience cloudy or blurred vision. Other symptoms include seeing halos around lights and being more sensitive to glares.
People in this age range are also more likely to be affected by AMD, glaucoma, and other eye conditions. Problems with color vision are also common during someone’s 70s and 80s. Over the years, the crystalline lens accumulates yellow pigmentation. This reduces the eye’s sensitivity to blue light and makes it more difficult to distinguish blue colors.
How Aging Affects Other Eye Structures
We covered how the crystalline lens, macula, optic nerve, and pupil can change over time, but other eye structures also age. Here are a few more parts that undergo age-related changes:
- Eyelids: As people age, it becomes more common to experience eyelid inflammation, a condition known asblepharitis. Symptoms of blepharitis include red, swollen, or itchy eyelids and watery eyes. Doctors can prescribe medications or use other treatment forms to manage symptoms.
- Tear glands: After years of wear, your tear glands may not produce as many tears, causing dry eye. Dry eye can lead to itching, burning, and, in some cases, a degree of vision loss. There are many different ways to treat dry eye and relieve symptoms.
- Cornea: Your cornea is the clear, curved lens covering the front of your eye. Many of the cornea’s changes do not interfere with vision. However, a condition called Fuchs’ dystrophy can lead to swelling in the cornea and produce vision problems.
- Trabecular meshwork: The trabecular meshwork is an area of spongy tissue located by the cornea. It helps drain aqueous humor from the eye. As a person ages, the trabecular meshwork may not function as well. This can cause fluid build-up, which may damage the optic nerve and lead to glaucoma.
Signs of Aging Eyes
We often dismiss vision changes as being a “normal” part of aging. However, you should have your eye doctor investigate any vision changes as soon as possible. In fact, because common age-related eye diseases often do not show any symptoms in their early stages, you’ll want to keep up with your routine eye exams to detect a problem before it causes vision loss.
What You Can Do to Protect Your Eyes as You Age
Two-thirds of Americans falsely believe that vision loss is an inevitable part of aging. Although you can’t keep your eyes from changing as you age, you can take steps to prevent vision loss. Here are five tips to keep your eyes as healthy as possible throughout your lifetime:
Most people already know exercise is good for the heart, but it’s also important for eye health. According to a University of Virginia School of Medicine study, exercise reduces blood vessel overgrowth in the eyes, decreasing the risk or severity of AMD and other eye diseases. Exercise can also help you manage diseases that might lead to vision issues, such as diabetes. To support your overall health, aim to get 30 minutes of moderate exercise each day.
2. Stop Smoking
Smoking increases the risk of many eye problems, including cataracts, AMD, optic nerve issues, diabetic retinopathy, and dry eye. If you’re ready to quit smoking and need assistance, talk with your doctor or check out the resources provided by the American Cancer Society.
3. Wear Sunglasses
Just like your skin, it’s crucial to protect your eyes from ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Exposure to too much UV light increases the risk of developing AMD, cataracts, and eye cancers. To keep your eyes protected from the sun, wear sunglasses that provide UV protection along with a wide-brimmed hat.
4. Eat a Healthy Diet
Your eyes need various nutrients to stay healthy. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends focusing on foods that contain vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants such as lutein and zeaxanthin, and the mineral zinc. To get these nutrients, make sure you eat the following foods:
- Orange vegetables and fruits
- Avocados, almonds, or sunflower seeds
- Oily fish such as salmon, tuna, or sardines
- Leafy greens
5. Get Regular Eye Exams
Going to regular eye exams is one of the best things you can do to detect eye disease early and reduce the risk of vision loss. Your exam can uncover eye problems like glaucoma, cataracts, and AMD. Many diseases are treatable in the early stages. If you have certain risk factors, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or a family history of AMD, or are over 65, get an eye exam once a year. Otherwise, it’s recommended to get your eyes examined at least every two years. If you experience sudden vision changes, call your doctor immediately.
See Your Eye Doctor Regularly
Just like other parts of your body, there’s no way to keep your eyes from aging. However, that doesn’t mean you have to accept vision changes and brush them off as being “normal.” Always speak with your doctor immediately if you notice any vision changes, whether you’re in your 20s or 80s. An optometrist or ophthalmologist can determine if your symptoms are signs of something serious and recommend the appropriate treatment.
But even if you do not notice any changes, you should see your eye doctor regularly. Remember that some serious eye diseases, such as AMD, can be asymptomatic at first so it is important to get screened. For example, your doctor can use a test like the AdaptDx Pro® to measure your dark adaptation function and identify a problem, that would otherwise go unnoticed. According to the Alabama Study on Early Age-Related Macular Degeneration, dark adaptation impairment can indicate subclinical AMD at least three years before it’s clinically detectable. The sooner you get screened for AMD, the earlier you can get treated and delay or reduce unnecessary vision loss. To get tested for AMD with this innovative testing technology, find an AdaptDx Pro® provider today.