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Ageing eyes: Signs of eye problems in the elderly

Older woman with bright blue eyes

Regular eye tests are the very best way to avoid vision problems, particualrly as you grow older. If you haven't had an eye exam in more than two years, schedule an appointment with an optometrist near you.

Being aware of certain warning signs can also 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 minimise permanent vision loss.

While many eye problems can occur at any age, they are often more common in older individuals. Unfortunately, ageing also increases your risk for certain types of sight-threatening eye conditions that can lead to blindness.

10 signs and symptoms of eye problems

The following signs and symptoms can indicate a medical emergency or an urgent condition that could cause significant vision loss over time. In most cases, you should see your optometrist as soon as possible if you experience:

1. A sudden onset of many spots and floaters in your field of vision

Usually, eye 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, the light-sensitive inner lining on the back of the eye. 

However, a sudden onset of spots and floaters can also be caused by a serious, sight-threatening tear or detachment of the retina. If you suddenly see a shower of spots and floaters, see an optometrist immediately.

2. 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 (the choroid). If the retina is not reattached within hours, vision loss can be permanent.

3. Sudden eye pain, redness, nausea and vomiting

Blurry vision, ghost images and nighttime halos around lights all can be warning signs of eye problems.

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.

4. Double vision, double images or "ghost" images

Double vision can be caused by many eye conditions. In some cases, double vision can also signal an underlying health emergency such as a stroke. If you have a sudden onset of double vision, see an optometrist immediately.

5. Sudden blind spot in one eye

Being over 60, increases your chance of developing a hole in the macular, the most sensitive part of the retina. Macular holes can worsen and cause permanent loss of vision, so it's important to see an optometrist immediately if you notice a grey area or blind spot when viewing objects with one eye.

6. A narrowing of your field of view

A simulation of peripheral vision loss, also known as tunnel vision.

A reduction of your ability to see objects off to the sides could be a sign of glaucoma. Without intervention, peripheral vision loss could continue to worsen, leading to tunnel vision or even blindness.

7. A grey, blurry or distorted spot in the centre of your visual field

These symptoms may be caused by macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of blindness among older people. In the past, there was no effective treatment for macular degeneration, but today new medical treatments can sometimes halt or limit AMD-related vision loss.

8. Poor night vision, halos around lights or less vivid colour vision

These vision changes may be due to cataracts. Cataracts tend to increase gradually over time and are not a medical emergency. Nevertheless, as your eye's natural lens continues to cloud with ageing, your vision will continue to deteriorate unless you have cataract surgery that replaces your cloudy lens with a custom 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.

9. Blurred vision and grey areas in your visual field

If you have diabetes, these vision problems may be due to the onset of diabetic retinopathy. Regular eye tests are essential for diabetics, particularly if you are over age 60. By evaluating the condition of your retina, your optometrist can provide valuable information to your GP about the control and severity of your diabetes.

10. Red, "scratchy," irritated eyes

These signs and symptoms are most commonly due to dry eye syndrome. Dry eyes usually are more of a nuisance than a sight-threatening condition. However, symptoms can be severe, particularly as you grow older and your body produces fewer tears or your tear chemistry changes. Consult your optometrist for advice about remedies, which may include over-the-counter or prescription eye drops.

Preventing age-related eye problems

It's much better to prevent age-related eye problems than to try to minimise their impact on your vision after they have begun.

You can reduce your risk of developing serious eye problems later in life by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and having routine eye examinations. Eye vitamins and good nutrition may also reduce your risk of certain eye problems. [Read more about tips for preventing vision loss.]

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