Aging Eyes

Aging Eyes
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By Vicki Giuggio

Crow’s feet and dark circles- are those your main eye-related concerns as you say good-bye to the back end of your forties? Many of us have an anti-wrinkle strategy, but aging affects our eyesight, too. Some age-related eye conditions are easily managed, but others can lead to serious problems if not detected in their early stages. Don’t let compromised vision be part of your retirement plan. Here are five eye disorders common in people over 50 to be on the lookout for:

Presbyopia.  Sounds dire, but this is nothing more than the official name for age-related farsightedness. It can kick in at about age 40 or 45. Small type and menus in dark restaurants become too much work for the lens and surrounding muscles in your eye; loss of elasticity, as you know, is inevitable with age and your eye is not immune to these effects. Although there is no way to avoid the diminished ability to focus up close, correcting your vision is as easy as heading to your local pharmacy for some “readers”. If you wear glasses or contacts, your eye doctor can make adjustments to your prescription to resolve the problem.

Dry eye.  Five to thirty percent of Americans over age 50 have dry eye. But what is it? True to its name, it is abnormal dryness in the eye. It develops when your eyes either stop producing tears properly or there is an abnormality in the tears themselves and they aren’t doing their job which is, of course, to keep the surface of your eyes healthy. Dry eye can occur as a part of the natural aging process, especially during menopause; about twice as many women are afflicted as men. In fact, hormone replacement therapy increases your risk of developing dry eye.  Dry eye can also result from an underlying disease, such as Sjogren’s syndrome, or be a side effect of taking certain medications. Sometimes it develops simply because you live in a dry, dusty or windy climate. You should be aware of the symptoms and see a doctor if they persist because if left untreated, serious complications can develop- including blindness. Symptoms include stinging, burning, and redness of the eye, a sandy or gritty feeling as if something is in the eye, uncomfortable contact lenses, pain, episodes of blurred vision, and difficulty reading or working at the computer for long periods of time. Don’t fret, however. Dry eye can be managed as an ongoing condition. Depending upon your symptoms and the cause, your doctor will determine the best course of action for alleviating the symptoms. Often, treatment will come in the form of eye drops; either those that mimic the composition of tears (artificial tears) or anti-inflammatory drops. Sometimes, inserting plugs to block tear drainage will make more sense. There are things you can do to help thwart dry eye, too. First, stay hydrated by drinking lots of water and avoiding diuretics. Also, some studies suggest that increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids can improve dry eye symptoms, so it makes sense to eat more fish or take oral flaxseed oil supplements. Protecting your eyes from irritating environmental factors can diminish the symptoms as well. Using a humidifier, wearing protective wrap around sunglasses, and avoiding direct currents from air conditioners and heaters are all actions that keep your eyes safe from dry conditions.

Cataracts.  More than half of all Americans will either have a cataract or had surgery to treat a cataract by the time they are 80. Your risk for cataracts increase as you age, but people can have age-related cataracts in their 40s and 50s. Additional risk factors associated with cataracts are diabetes, smoking and alcohol use, and prolonged exposure to sunlight. A cataract is a formation in the lens of your eye where proteins have clumped together, clouding that part of the lens. With time, a cataract may slowly grow larger. As it clouds more of the lens, objects appear as if you were peering through foggy glasses. They are not painful, nor do they cause redness or discomfort in your eye. Some cataracts will never grow large enough to impair your vision significantly. Those that do grow often remain unnoticed until they steal vision, usually after the age 60. If vision loss interferes with everyday life, surgical treatment will restore adequate vision for most people. Cataracts can be detected during an eye exam. If you have a cataract, protecting your eyes against UV light whenever possible and limiting your smoking and alcohol use may delay its growth. Also, research suggests that a diet rich in green leafy vegetables, fruit, and other antioxidants can help keep cataracts at bay.

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD).  Gradually destroying your central vision, AMD is a leading cause of blindness in Americans 60 years of age and older. As its name suggests, age is the leading risk factor for AMD but additional factors such as family history, smoking, obesity, race (Caucasians are at greater risk than African Americans), and gender (females develop AMD more than males) can put you further at risk. AMD is the destruction of the macula, which is a cluster of cells in the back of the eye that is responsible for crispness and perception of fine detail. AMD comes in two forms, dry and wet. Early signs of dry AMD are blurred vision and over time a distinct, blurred spot may appear in the center of vision. An early sign of wet AMD, which can cause vision loss more quickly than dry AMD, is that straight lines appear wavy. There is no cure for either type and once dry AMD reaches the advanced stage, no form of treatment can prevent vision loss. Most patients are diagnosed with mild or intermediate AMD- about 30% of individuals 75 years or older have this form. For a large percentage of these individuals, the disease will not progress to advanced AMD within five years. Diet and/or supplements can be used as a first intervention to slow the progression of intermediate AMD. An Age-related eye disease study (AREDS) sponsored by the National Eye Institute found that taking high dose antioxidants and zinc can reduce the risk of developing advanced AMD and associated vision loss. Other treatment options to delay disease progression are laser surgery, photodynamic therapy, or injections with biological therapeutics. Preserving your vision depends highly on early intervention, however. You should have a comprehensive eye exam every 1-2 years that includes tests for detecting early signs of AMD so you can take steps to delay its progression before your vision is severely compromised.

Glaucoma.  Anyone can develop glaucoma, but those at increased risk are people over age 60, African Americans over age 40, and anyone with a family history of glaucoma. A group of related diseases, glaucoma damages the optic nerve due to excessive fluid pressure within the eyeball. At first, there are no symptoms. As the disease progresses, there is gradual loss of peripheral vision. Over time, all vision is lost. The process can be so gradual that significant vision loss can occur before you realize there’s anything wrong. Therefore, a routine eye examination is the best way to successfully manage the disease; if glaucoma is detected early on, treatment with medicines, laser or conventional surgery, or a combination of any of these can delay its progression. What can’t be done is to reverse sight already lost from glaucoma. Early diagnosis of glaucoma remains the only action for protection your vision.

Aging puts all of us at risk for developing serious eye conditions. The most effective strategy to protect your vision is as simple as seeing your ophthalmologist every year or two. Put it into play when you turn 50 by booking a comprehensive eye exam. This will establish a baseline from which your doctor can monitor and manage your eye care as you grow older. You may not be able to do much to stop those wrinkles over time, but at least you will be able to see them.

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