Ask the Expert: Vision Health as You Age

Many people tend to expect their eyesight to decline with age – perhaps requiring a stronger eyeglass prescription or “readers” to scan the daily paper.  And while some changes to vision are linked to age, there are some steps we can all consider to help our eyes stay as healthy as possible.   

Dr. Linda Chous, OD, chief eye care officer, UnitedHealthcare, is here to answer questions.

  1. Are my eyes going to keep getting worse as I age? Is there anything I can do to slow the progression of vision decline? 
    By no means is your eyesight guaranteed to deteriorate with age, but it is perfectly normal to notice changes to your vision as the years pass. Unfortunately, there is nothing that can be done to stop normal vision changes. However, it is important to maintain regular appointments with your eye doctor (see below) to help identify pressing concerns.

    With age, it is normal to experience:
    -Minor adjustments to your eyeglasses prescription or needing to use “readers” for the first time;
    -Trouble distinguishing colors, such as blue from black; and
    -The need for more light to see well.

    Although these changes are often normal, they can also be signs of conditions like cataracts or even diabetes. If you experience sudden vision loss or any rapid change to your eyesight, contact your eye care provider immediately. 

  2. I have noticed tiny spots or specks float across my vision. What is that all about?
    Many people notice tiny specks within their field of vision. These small spots are tiny threads of protein that float across the gel-like substance between your eye’s lens and retina.

    Usually there is no need to worry if you only notice these spots occasionally and they disappear after a few minutes, but only a dilated eye examination can determine the cause of the “floaters”.

    However, if your vision is overcome by these specks or you are noticing vision loss, contact your eye doctor as soon as possible, as it could be a symptom of a sight-threating condition.  

  3. What are some of the most common vision-related diseases that come with age?
    Here is the scoop on some of the most common age-related vision conditions:

    Age-related macular degeneration
    AMD is the leading cause of vision loss in people over the age of 65. AMD causes damage to the macula, the small spot on the retina that enables people to see clearly and to view things straight ahead of them.

    Common symptoms of AMD are distortion and blurring of the center of your field of vision. If caught in the early stage, there are potential benefits from taking certain prescription medications and nutritional supplements. However, late-stage AMD is much more difficult to treat.  

    Research has found that certain factors like heredity, ultraviolet light exposure, and smoking may increase the risk of developing AMD.  Consult with your eye doctor to determine if a preventive treatment plan is right for you.

    The lens in your eye is like a camera lens – it is clear and allows light to pass through to create an image. A cataract is the clouding of this lens, blocking the flow of light to the back of your eye (retina), which ultimately causes loss of sight.

    There are many kinds of cataracts, and most usually form slowly and do not cause pain. If the clouding is small, it is possible you may not even notice it. However, significant clouding can form in some people and, ultimately, negatively impact vision.

    The good news is cataracts are treatable via surgery that removes the clouded lens and replaces it with a clear plastic lens. Cataract surgery is generally safe and is one of the most common surgeries done in the United States.  Once a cataract is removed, it cannot grow back 

    Glaucoma is caused by increased pressure inside the eye, which can cause permanent vision loss and blindness if left untreated. There are several types of glaucoma, but the most common form usually has no noticeable symptoms in the early stages – the only way to detect it is by visiting your eye care provider for routine testing.

    Treatment may include prescription eye drops, oral medications, laser treatment surgery or a combination of any of these.  It is important to find glaucoma early because once vision is lost, it cannot be regained.

  4. What are the best ways to keep my eyes healthy as I age?
    Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is as important for your eye health as it is for your overall physical health. Some of the best ways to protect your eyes as you age include:

    Stop smoking. Smokers are up to four times more likely to develop AMD and may contribute to the development of cataracts. 
    -Maintain a healthy weight. Conditions associated with being overweight, like diabetes and heart disease, increase your risk of developing vision loss from cataracts, glaucoma and retinopathy.
    -Wear sunglasses. Help protect your eyes from harmful ultraviolet rays (read on to learn why it is so important). 
    -Be physically active. A study found people who are physically active experienced less vision loss over 20 years compared to those who didn’t exercise.
    -Eat a healthy diet. Colorful fruits and vegetables like leafy greens, tomatoes and blueberries, contain nutrients that can keep your eyes healthy and reduce the risk of AMD. 

  5. Do sunglasses really protect my eyes?
    Sunglasses can be a great fashion statement, but more importantly, they act as a buffer between your eyes and the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. Exposure to these UV rays can put you at greater risk to develop cataracts and AMD.  

    When shopping for your next pair of shades, look for a pair that offers UV protection that will block out 99% to 100% of UV rays. It is important to know polarization is different from UV protection; however, most sunglasses that are polarized also provide UV protection. Be sure to check out the product tag or ask for assistance in choosing the right pair. 

  6. How often should I see my eye care doctor?
    Staying on top of your eye exams is crucial to helping maintain your eye health as you age. You should aim to see your eye doctor annually even if your vision hasn’t changed.  Many potentially blinding eye diseases, like glaucoma, have no symptoms in their early stages. In fact, many systemic conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, can be first found during a “routine” eye exam.

    UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage members, many plans include routine vision services as well as additional services that are not covered under Original Medicare. It’s helpful to learn how to take advantage of these and other benefits.

    Not only is it important in helping to catch early warning signs, it allows your doctor to have a trackable record of your eye prescription and eye health over the years, which can be useful when diagnosing an eye disease. That said, if you notice any sudden changes, please see your doctor immediately.