A quick guide to healthy eyesight in the over-50s

By Lynda McGivney-Nolan, Association of Optometrists Ireland

The ageing process starts in the eye when we reach the age of 40. This ageing process means that our eyes become less efficient in performing their visual function and need more help to see. As they age, our eyes become more susceptible to sight-damaging diseases.

The first sign of ageing in the eye is a reduction in our close vision. We call this presbyopia. Changes occur to the lens inside the eye, which allows us to focus on close work, which means that we need to hold print away from us to see it clearly. For many of us, this is our first introduction to glasses, when we need to get our first pair for reading. These glasses will need to be changed on average every two years.

How does ageing in the eye affect other aspects of our vision?

These changes are very subtle and often we do not notice them until they become a problem:

Glare: vision in bright light or glare conditions usually decreases. This is due to changes inside the lens of the eye. We notice night driving becomes a problem and we find that seeing in bright sunlight is uncomfortable and difficult. Your optometrist can recommend special lenses in your glasses to help with this.

Poor vision in low lighting: the older eye has more difficulties seeing when the ambient illumination is not bright enough. This means that it can be difficult to get around in places where the lighting is not bright enough. Older people need to take extra care in these situations. This can also lead to problems when reading, even when you have new reading glasses. Older people need two to three times more light to read than young people, so as well as keeping your reading glasses up to date, invest in a good reading lamp.

Driving: this is a particular area where older people need to take extra care, both for their own safety and that of other road users. Over the age of 50, the distance vision in the eye starts to change. Many people who have never needed to use spectacles for driving and watching TV, or just had them for reading, now find they need to use glasses for distance vision purposes. If you experience glare from the headlights of on-coming cars, another problem related to ageing in the eye, a special coating can be put on the lenses of these glasses to reduce the effects of this unpleasant phenomenon.

Gradual reduction in your visual field of vision

However, another change taking place in your eyes which can affect your driving is the gradual reduction in your visual field, which takes place in all individuals as they age. This is where your peripheral vision starts to reduce. By the time a person reaches their 70s or 80s the visual field has reduced to such an extent it could increase the risk of a car accident. Your optometrist can do a special test for you to check your field of vision.

Dry eyes: another normal problem commonly experienced with our eyes as we get older includes dry eyes. Dry eyes occur because our tear quality deteriorates with age. Common symptoms of this problem include itching, a burning sensation, light sensitivity and excess tearing going from indoors to outdoors. 

The ageing eye also becomes more prone to diseases which can threaten the sight in your eyes and, if left untreated, can lead to blindness.

Over-50s age group

The most common causes of vision loss in the over-50s age group result from conditions such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD), cataracts, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy, as well as other less common problems related to general health issues, such as blood pressure and cholesterol.

Early diagnosis means a better prognosis

The most important thing to always remember with any health issue is that early diagnosis means a better prognosis. If you are visiting your optometrist every two years, or if necessary, every year, the chance of a problem being picked up in the very early stages is much higher. An ophthalmologist (eye specialist) will have a much higher success rate in dealing with many vision problems if the problem is picked up early.

May chose to ignore any problems

Family members should be aware of the changes that older members of the family will experience as they age. Sometimes, older people may not themselves be aware of those changes or they may chose to ignore any problems they may be having, for fear of losing independence.

Signs that an older family member may be having problems with their eyes or their vision include: knocking over items, bumping into door frames or objects in their peripheral vision and misplacing objects when trying to put them on a table.

The more obvious signs include:  reluctance to carry out previously enjoyed exercises, such as going out for walks, reading, watching TV and driving, despite being physically mobile.

Encourage older family members to attend regular eye examinations

Just watch for any changes in pattern or increased rate of accidents. Encourage older family members to attend regular eye examinations, preferably on an annual basis if there is a history of vision problems. Remind them that if their problems are vision related it may be solved simply by getting new glasses or attending an ophthalmologist to have cataracts removed.

Our life expectancy is increasing. This means we should be living longer, healthier and happier lives. A key part to enjoying life in our older years is healthy vision. Regular eye tests, wearing the right glasses and looking after your general health, is the best way to ensure happy healthy older eyes. Your local optometrist is there to help, just ask!