Ten Warning Signs of Age-Related Eye Problems
Regular eye exams are the very best way to avoid vision problems, even as you grow older.
But being aware of certain warning signs also can help you take appropriate steps to maintain your eyesight, particularly if vision symptoms occur suddenly. In many cases, such as with a detached retina or rapid onset of glaucoma, prompt intervention is essential to avoid or minimize permanent vision loss.
While many eye problems can occur at any age, they often are more common in older individuals. Unfortunately, aging also increases your risk for certain types of sight-threatening eye conditions that can lead to blindness.
Blurry vision, ghost images, and night "halos" all can be warning signs of eye problems.
Eye Problems and Warning Signs
The following signs and symptoms can indicate a medical emergency. In most cases, you should see your eye doctor immediately if you experience:
- A flood of spots and floaters in your field of vision. Usually, spots and floaters are due to a benign, age-related condition called vitreous detachment. This occurs when the eye's gel-like interior liquefies and separates from the retina, where vision processing occurs.
But a sudden onset of spots and floaters also can be caused by a serious, sight-threatening tear or detachment of the retina. If you suddenly see a shower of spots and floaters, visit your optometrist or ophthalmologist immediately.
- A sensation that a dark curtain has settled across your field of view. This could be caused by a retinal detachment, which occurs when the retina separates from the underlying layer of nourishing blood vessels (choroid). If the retina is not reattached within hours, vision loss can be permanent.
- Sudden eye pain, redness, nausea and vomiting. These symptoms can signal a sudden (acute) attack of narrow-angle glaucoma, which can permanently damage the eye's optic nerve. Immediate treatment is required to prevent permanent vision loss.
- A gradual (or sudden) narrowing of your field of vision, leaving you with the ability to see only directly in front of you. This could mean you have developed glaucoma that damages your optic nerve, with accompanying vision loss at the "edges" of your field of view. Without intervention, vision loss will continue and permanent blindness may result.
- A gradual loss of central vision, including distortions such as seeing wavy instead of straight lines. These symptoms may be caused by macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of blindness among older Americans. In the past, there was no effective treatment for AMD. But today, several new medical treatments can effectively halt vision loss due to macular degeneration. Some treatments may even help you regain some vision lost to AMD, if therapy is initiated soon enough.
- Cloudy and blurred eyesight, "halos" around lights at night, loss of bright color vision. These vision changes may be due to cataracts. Cataracts tend to worsen gradually over time and are not a medical emergency. Nevertheless, as your eye's natural lens continues to cloud with aging, you eventually will go blind unless you have cataract surgery that replaces your cloudy lens with a man-made intraocular lens (IOL).
If you wait too long for cataract surgery, you increase your chance of complications such as glaucoma. Also, if cataract surgery is postponed too long, the cloudy lens can harden and become more difficult to remove.
- Blind spots in your field of view, accompanied by eye floaters and unexplained blurred vision. If you have diabetes, these vision problems may be due to the onset of diabetic retinopathy. Regular eye exams are essential for diabetics, particularly if you are over age 60. By evaluating the condition of your retina, your eye doctor also can provide valuable information to your general physician about the control and severity of your diabetes.
- "Scratchy" or irritated sensation, eye surface pain, tearing. These signs and symptoms are most commonly due to dry eye syndrome. Dry eye usually is more of a nuisance than a sight-threatening condition. But symptoms can be severe, particularly as you grow older and your body produces fewer tears or your tear chemistry changes. Consult your eye care practitioner for advice about remedies, which may include over-the-counter or prescription eye drops.
- Double vision, double images or "ghost" images. Double vision can be caused by many eye conditions. In some cases, double vision also can signal an underlying health emergency such as a stroke. If you have a sudden onset of double vision, see your eye doctor or family physician immediately.
- Sudden blurry vision in one eye. If you are over 60, your chance of developing a macular hole in the part of the retina where fine focusing occurs increases. Because macular holes can worsen and cause permanent loss of vision, it's important to visit your eye care practitioner for a diagnosis and prompt treatment (if necessary).
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While some vision symptoms are less urgent, sudden vision loss means you should immediately contact your eye care practitioner. If your regular eye doctor is unavailable, visit a hospital emergency room or urgent care facility. Because delay can mean permanent vision loss, never hesitate to seek help.
You also can reduce your chances of developing serious eye problems by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, along with undergoing regular eye exams. Eye vitamins and good nutrition also may reduce your risk of certain eye problems. [Read more about tips for preventing vision loss.]
[Page updated February 2014]