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Age-related vision changes and how to correct for them

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What vision changes are normal as you age? Quite a few vision conditions -- including presbyopia, cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy -- crop up after middle age. 

For example, if you’re over 40, you may find yourself squinting as you read text messages or struggling with eye fatigue throughout the day. Or perhaps you’re suddenly seeing the world through a cloud. 

Age-related vision changes, some more manageable than others, are common as we get older. Most age-related vision changes are correctable with eyeglasses, contact lenses or vision surgery.

Diagnosing sight-threatening vision conditions early can stop or slow their progression, which is why regular eye exams are important, especially as you get older.

In this article we will cover some common age-related vision changes, how these conditions are treated and how eye exams help in identifying vision issues and correction options as we get older.

What are some common age-related vision changes?

PRESBYOPIA: As we grow older, our eyes’ lenses become less flexible over time. This condition, called presbyopia, leads to a gradual decline in our ability to focus on small, nearby objects and words.

Presbyopia, according to Vision Impact Institute research, is the most common physiological change occurring in the adult eye and is thought to cause universal near vision impairment with advancing age..

In most cases, presbyopia can be corrected with a pair of reading glasses, progressive lenses. or vision surgery.

Presbyopia tends to worsen with age, so it’s not uncommon to need different pairs of glasses for different tasks, especially as you enter your mid-50s and 60s. 

LIGHT SENSITIVITY: Often seniors will find they need more time to adjust to changing light conditions or that they require more ambient light to perform tasks comfortably.

This age-related vision change is caused when the muscles controlling the pupils’ size can become weaker and less responsive over time. 

How can you compensate for difficulty adjusting to changing light? Try wearing eyeglasses with photochromic lenses or adjusting the lighting in your home.

CATARACTS: Cataracts occur when an eye lens — which is normally transparent — thickens, hardens and becomes opaque.

Cataracts are the world's leading cause of blindness. In the United States, cataracts, to some degree, affect more than half of all Americans older than 65, according to Wilmer Eye Institute, part of Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Cataracts are a treatable medical condition, and modern cataract surgery is highly effective at restoring vision with few risks. Cataract surgery involves inserting an artificial lens, also known as an intraocular lens (IOLs), where the eyes lens used to be. 

After cataract surgery, you may still need to use reading glasses for close-up work.

Unfortunately, several serious eye conditions also are normal as we age. 

GLAUCOMA: Glaucoma is a serious age-related eye condition n which the fluids inside the eye fail to drain properly, causing a pressure buildup that eventually damages the optic nerve. 

Though the vision loss caused by glaucoma is permanent, it can be prevented with medical treatments like surgery and pressure-reducing medication. 

MACULAR DEGENERATION: Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a condition caused by the deterioration of the central retinal tissues. 

There are two forms of AMD — wet and dry — with dry being more common. Only 10 to 15 percent of AMD patients are diagnosed with the wet form, which causes more serious vision loss.

Some AMD treatments, especially if started early, may improve vision or slow its progression. There is no cure for AMD. 

AMD is a major cause of blindness worldwide and the leading cause of vision loss and blindness for Americans age 65 years and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

DIABETIC RETINOPATHY: Seniors are also at higher risk of developing diabetic retinopathy, a vision condition that occurs in diabetics with poorly controlled blood sugar levels. Diabetic retinopathy results in permanent damage to the blood vessels of the retina. 

Managing your diabetes and monitoring blood sugar carefully can help reduce your risk of diabetic retinopathy.

OTHER NORMAL AGE-RELATED VISION CHANGES: As we grow older, other common vision changes include a decreased ability to distinguish between colors similar in shade and trouble seeing to drive at night.

Difficulty distinguishing different shades of colors often is caused by cells on the retina becoming less sensitive. Other times this vision change can be due to slight discoloration of the lens. 

SEE RELATED: Night vision and driving: How safe are older drivers?

The importance of regular eye exams as we get older

Early detection of sight-threatening vision conditions like glaucoma is is critical for treatment, and routine eye exams are the best way to identify eye issues.

Scheduling routine eye exams — the CDC recommends once a year or more frequently if you have a family history of eye disease — is essential for adults over the age of 40. If you are over 65, you should see your eye doctor more often.

WORRIED ABOUT AGE-RELATED VISION CHANGES? Find an eye doctor near you and schedule an eye exam. 

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