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Doctors say you should get your vision checked regularly as you age

March 31, 2011|By MARIE GILBERT | marieg@herald-mail.com
  • Doctors say as you age, regular vision testing should be a priority.
Photo illustration by Kevin G. Gilbert Staff Photographer

Do you see what I see?

If the answer to your eye doctor's question is no, it's probably time for stronger glasses.

Or maybe the problem is something more serious.

By age 65, one in three people has some form of vision-impairing eye disease, says the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

Yet most older adults don't know it because, often, there are no warning signs.

And, for many people, regular vision testing isn't a priority.

But it should be, said Dr. Sunil M. Thadani, an ophthalmologist and cornea, cataract and refractive surgeon with Bergman Eye Center in Hagerstown.

By detecting and treating eye problems early through regular exams, seniors can preserve their sight, he said.

Just as the body ages, so can the eyes.

Some people might go through life with 20-20 vision, Thadani said. It depends on the individual.

"But it's important to understand that as we get older, there is more of a predisposition to certain diseases that affect our eyes," he said.

Unfortunately, many people don't realize those problems exist.

Routine eye exams can make a big difference in correcting, stalling or preventing serious eye problems, he said.

Even if you're healthy, Thadani recommends seeing an eye doctor at least once a year.

"You never know what is happening to your eyes unless you have a full exam," he said.


Aging and the eyes


Among the most common eye problems that accompany the aging process are cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy.

By the age of 50, cataracts become fairly common and "it's important to monitor your eyes to make sure they're not getting worse," Thadani said.

A cataract is a clouding of the normally clear lens of your eye. Most cataracts are related to aging and are common in older people — although they can develop earlier. By age 80, more than half of all Americans either have a cataract or have had cataract surgery.

Some medicine also can affect cataracts, Thadani said.

Most cataracts develop slowly and don't disturb your eyesight early on, he noted. But, if impaired vision interferes with day-to-day activities, he encourages his patients to have surgery.

Surgery to remove cataracts has come a long way, he said. "This is not your parents' cataract surgery."

"Twenty years ago, people avoided cataract surgery," he said. "Now, there are really small incisions and often there are no sutures, no anesthesia, except for topical anesthesia. The whole procedure takes less than 30 or 40 minutes and you go home the same day. It's really become advanced."

The lenses also have advanced, Thadani said.

"During surgery, we can not only remove the cataracts but also correct vision with certain lenses," he said.

"I can't emphasize (enough) the comfort and overall experience of today's cataract surgery," he added.


Diseases of the eye


Thadani said glaucoma is another area of concern among older adults, and one that he has made a priority in educating the public.

Glaucoma is a group of diseases that can damage the eye's optic nerve. It is one of the leading causes of blindness in the United States and the most common cause of blindness among African-Americans. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmologists, more than three million people have glaucoma but half do not realize it because there often are no symptoms.

Your risk of developing glaucoma increases with each decade after the age of 40, reports the Mayo Clinic.

Thadani said he has been doing a lot of glaucoma screenings in the Hagerstown area and calls the disease "a real issue — a group of diseases that affects a large number of the population."

One of the risk factors is age. Another is family history, he said.

"Many times, you lose your peripheral vision, but you don't really notice it until it's in the later stages," he said. "That's one of the reasons a regular eye exam is so important."

According to National Institutes of Health, approximately 10.2 million Americans over the age of 40 are known to have diabetes.  Many experts believe that up to 30 percent of those people have not yet been diagnosed.

Among known diabetics, NIH estimates that 40 percent have some degree of diabetic retinopathy and one of every 12 people with diabetes in this age group has advanced, vision-threatening retinopathy.

"Diabetes is one of those health issues that affects the eyes," Thadani said. "When I have a diabetic patient, I work closely with the primary care physician. And I make sure that they come in at least once a year, if not more often, for evaluation."

Another area of concern is age-related macular degeneration, a chronic condition that causes central vision loss. The older you are, the greater your chance of being affected, Thadani said.

Symptoms include blurriness, wavy lines or a blind spot. The patient might also notice visual distortions such as objects appearing smaller or farther away. 

When it comes to maintaining good eye health, Thadani recommends a diet rich in antioxidants.

"Studies have shown that it's beneficial in preventing macular degeneration, even if there is a predisposition," he said.

There also is a lot of support for Mediterranean diets, he added. There even is a cookbook devoted to foods to keep your eyes healthy.

Aside from that, Thadani said there are no specific supplements, "no magic bullets" that will protect your eyes.

"It's important to follow a healthy diet, overall," he said, "especially if you are diabetic."



Keeping an eye on vision

If you have experienced any changes in your vision, The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends scheduling an appointment with your eye doctor.

  • Changes that should signal visiting a doctor include increasing dryness or tearing; decreasing peripheral vision, blurred or distorted vision; decreasing ability to distinguish colors, especially shades of brown, beige and blue; decreasing ability to adjust to light or glare; "floaters" or spots that seem to drift in your field of vision; and any signs of infection or swelling around the eyes.
  • As always, says the academy, communication with your eye care provider is very important.
  • Here are some suggestions for your screening, courtesy of the academy.
  •  Make a list of symptoms that you have observed in yourself. Bring the list to your appointment so you won't forget to tell your provider about them.
  •  Set a plan with your eye care provider regarding how often you should have a comprehensive medical eye exam that includes dilation of your pupils. Schedule appointments so that you can arrange for transportation home afterward.
  •  Be sure to make your eye doctor aware of any medications you might be taking.
  •  Request educational materials on the topics of concern to you.

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