Spotlight on Healthy Aging Month: Managing Your Maturing Eyes


September 24, 2020

New York, NY—When it comes to your eyesight, the signs of age may be subtle at first. Perhaps the words on a dinner menu suddenly become more difficult to decipher, driving at dusk becomes a bit more precarious, and distinguishing between colors such as black and blue requires the assistance of another pair of eyes. These changes are generally normal and natural with maturity.

“Age may weaken our eyes, but it does not mean we are doomed to have poor vision,” explains Jerome Sherman, OD, who is a distinguished teaching professor at SUNY College Optometry and previously served as Chief of Advanced Care and Director of Professional Services at the College’s University Eye Center. “It does mean that we must make routine eye care a priority. It is important to have regular screenings for age-related issues.”

Sight through the ages

Particularly after age 40, there are age-related eye problems that are considered part of human development and easily treated, although in some cases an indicator of an underlying condition, says Dr. Sherman. These include:

  • Presbyopia or the loss of ability to see close objects or small print. This problem is typically corrected with reading glasses.
  • Floaters or tiny spots or specks that float across the field of vision. Floaters are common but can indicate eye problems such as retinal detachment if accompanied by light flashes. If you notice a flash or an increase in eye floaters, it is important to contact your eye doctor immediately.
  • Dry eyes which may present a problem at middle age thanks to a shift in hormones. Changes in diet and prescription eye drops can help increase lubrication.
  • Eye tearing which can come from being sensitive to light, wind, or temperature changes, or because of dry eye. Remedies include eye drops and wearing sunglasses. However, the tearing can be a sign of infection or a blocked tear duct, so it is essential to contact your optometrist if the problem persists.

While there are eye issues that can be expected and managed as we age, Dr. Sherman points to three major problems that can impair vision and steal sight entirely.

            Glaucoma. A condition most often related to increased pressure in the eye that can damage the optic nerve. If not treated, glaucoma can lead to permanent vision loss or blindness. In fact, it is the leading cause of blindness in people over the age of 60. Glaucoma comes in many forms and often without warning signs. If recognized early, however, the condition can be slowed or prevented. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), glaucoma affects more than 2.7 million Americans age 40 and older and is most common among Blacks and Hispanics, says Dr. Sherman.

            Cataracts. Cloudy areas of the lens in the front of the eye. Cataracts keep light from easily passing through the eye’s lens to the back of the eye or retina, causing the loss of eyesight. If cataracts become large or dense, it can cause misty or blurriness and significantly impact vision. Cataracts can often be treated and removed with surgery. As with other conditions, cataracts form slowly, and symptoms are gradual. Cataracts affect more than 24.4 million Americans age 40 and older. By age 75, approximately half of all Americans have cataracts. Studies have shown that Caucasian people, particularly those with fair skin and light eyes, tend to be at a greater risk for developing cataracts.

            Macular Degeneration or Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD). A disorder of the retina which results in blurred or no vision in the center part of your visual field in one or both eyes due to damage to the macula, a small area in the center of the retina. The macula provides the central vision needed for activities like reading, driving, and seeing sufficient detail. There are often no warning signs or symptoms like glaucoma, but some people experience a gradual worsening of vision over time. Over 2 million Americans age 50 and older have late AMD, the stage that can lead to severe vision impairment.

If you are among the 29 million people in the U.S. coping with diabetes, you may also be at risk for developing diabetic retinopathy. This condition occurs when poorly controlled blood sugar rises to a high level and causes damage to the retina’s blood vessels. Left untreated, it can lead to blindness. Medical interventions like injections and laser treatment can help slow vision loss and perhaps improve vision resulting from diabetic retinopathy. But Dr. Sherman stresses the importance of controlling blood sugar and blood pressure with nutrition, activity, and weight management to maintain healthy vision. ” All patients with diabetes should involve an eye doctor in their care who can examine the back of the eye to ensure blood vessels are normal.”

An ounce of prevention

What can we do to safeguard our eyes as we grow older? Dr. Sherman recommends starting with a comprehensive eye exam during which your doctor tests the pressure in your eyes, examines the optic nerve, and dilates the pupil to examine the retina. He also advises patients to:

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Good nutrition and daily activity are keys to overall good health and eyesight, says Dr. Sherman. Overweight and obese people are far more likely to develop AMD, glaucoma, and a host of other vision problems than those who weigh less. Studies suggest that regular exercise can reduce the risk of AMD by up to 70 percent.
  • Quit smoking. People who smoke have more than three times the risk of developing AMD than those who never smoked.
  • Shade in the sun. Always wear a hat and/or UV protective eyewear, either sunglasses or goggles depending on activity, that shield your eyes from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. This may help reduce your risk of cataract and other eye problems. “Looking at the sun, in general, is dangerous,” warns Dr. Sherman. “There is a risk of burning a hole in the eye’s retina, which can lead to blurred vision and vision loss; it is called solar retinopathy.” The same danger has been associated with laser pointers he adds.
  • Limit screen time. Computer screens and devices produce blue light associated with eye strain. The problem can be relieved by taking looking away and taking screen breaks. “However, some but not all studies suggest that blue light from screens can damage retinal cells, leading to problems like age-related macular degeneration,” says Dr. Sherman.

And, even if you have never worn eyeglasses or contacts at any point in your life, Dr. Sherman strongly encourages scheduling an eye exam as part of your yearly wellness check-up starting at age 40, although periodic eye exams at all ages are recommended. “Your eye doctor will help you to see clearly for years to come.”

For more information about SUNY College of Optometry or to schedule an appointment with the University Eye Center, visit sunyopt.edu or call 212-938-400. Telehealth is available for urgent care matters and upon request. Referrals are also accepted and welcomed.

Organization contact: Adrienne Stoller, communications@sunyopt.edu, 212-938-5600

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About SUNY Optometry

Founded in 1971 and located in New York City, the State University of New York College of Optometry is a leader in education, research, and patient care, offering the Doctor of Optometry degree as well as MS and PhD degrees in vision science. The College conducts a robust program of basic, translational, and clinical research and has 65 affiliated clinical training sites as well as an on-site clinic, the University Eye Center. SUNY Optometry is regionally accredited by the Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools; its four-year professional degree program and residency programs are accredited by the Accreditation Council on Optometric Education of the American Optometric Association. All classrooms, research facilities and the University Eye Center, which is one of the largest optometric outpatient facilities in the nation, are located on 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan. To learn more about SUNY Optometry, visit www.sunyopt.edu.

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