By Mark Ruchman, MD, Chief Medical Officer at Versant Health
It is well documented that people are living longer, but as we age, most people experience vision deterioration and an increased risk for debilitating vision conditions, such as cataracts. Over time, this vision deterioration can significantly impact seniors’ safety, independence and quality of life, including their ability to complete daily tasks like driving, cooking and reading. September is Healthy Aging Month, marking an important occasion for education about the importance of protecting eye health for seniors and the steps that can be taken to preserve their vision—as well as their wellbeing and standard of living.
Degenerative Vision Conditions that May Appear with Age
The majority of people will face some sort of vision issue by the time they reach their senior years. For example, by age 80, more than half of all Americans either have cataracts or have had cataract surgery and 92% of older adults enrolled in Medicare use eyeglasses. Knowing the warning signs and symptoms of age-related eye health issues can help healthcare professionals support early detection and treatment, whether they work in office with eye doctors or with health plans facilitating member care. With early intervention, many vision issues can be treated before seniors’ quality of life and safety are at risk.
By familiarizing themselves and educating senior patients and their caregivers on warning signs, such as blurred vision, cloudiness over the lens of the eye and bloodshot or visible blood vessel damage to the whites of the eye, healthcare professionals can help reduce the chances of delayed intervention for otherwise treatable conditions. A few serious vision concerns that seniors are susceptible to include:
- Cataracts affect 50% of Americans over the age of 80. They are characterized by cloudiness over the lens of the eye which can lead to sensitivity to glare, blurred vision and dulled colors. Once diagnosed with cataracts, seniors can help to slow down further damage by protecting their eyes from harmful UV sunlight.
- Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a significant cause of severe vision loss in adults over 50. This condition causes central vision loss and affects patients’ ability to read, watch television, drive and even recognize people. Tips for preventing and slowing the progression of AMD include maintaining a healthy weight, maintaining a healthy blood pressure and consuming a diet of leafy green vegetables.
- Diabetic retinopathy is a significant cause of vision morbidity in the elderly population. Diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes progression that is caused by continuous damage to the blood vessels around the retina. Once diagnosed, keeping blood sugar at appropriate levels can help to slow the progression of this disease.
Annual Eye Exams are Essential to Preserving Vision Health
Despite warning signs, many vision conditions may not display visible symptoms in early disease stages, which can lead to progression and irreversible vision loss before seniors notice there is a problem. For the best chance to detect these silent vision issues, seniors should be notified of the importance of annual eye exam appointments.
Leaving underlying vision issues untreated gets progressively more dangerous as you age. For example, 60% of adults over the age of 70 have outdated prescription lenses, which can mean difficulty in reading food labels or small print on prescription bottles. Further, untreated vision conditions could result in optic nerve damage and, eventually, severe vision loss.
Annual eye-exams are not just important for vision health – they can also help to diagnose other systemic diseases that may become more prevalent and riskier with age, such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.
Because eye health and overall health are intrinsically linked, physical health is also an important factor in preventing age-related vision issues. Seniors should be coached on maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, avoiding smoking, eating a balanced diet with leafy greens and wearing protective eyewear in the sun, which are measures that can be implemented in day-to-day life to assist in keeping eyes and vision healthy.
Degenerative vision conditions can take a toll on seniors’ health and their general happiness. Educating older patients and members, as well as the loved ones supporting them, on common degenerative vision conditions and the importance of annual eye exams can preserve their health and quality of life before costly and risky treatments are needed.