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As the decades pass by, most people are acutely aware of the healthy habits they need to adopt or maintain in order to maximize their vitality — such as eating heart-healthy foods, getting regular exercise, keeping their minds active, and watching sugar and salt intake. But when is the last time you did something purely for the health of your eyes?
Even though we rely on our eyes every moment we are awake, preserving our priceless eyesight is often an afterthought.
“While your primary care doctor and peers may regularly discuss heart health, blood pressure, and cholesterol, eye health isn’t as regularly discussed, so it’s not a part of the mainstream conversation,” explains Dr. Edward Wood, M.D., a board-certified ophthalmologist and fellowship-trained retina surgeon with Austin Retina Associates.
Additionally, changes in our eyesight can be surprisingly hard to detect. Dr. Wood says that many visual changes occur gradually over time, and it can be hard to appreciate a slow decline in vision. Similarly, sometimes only one eye may be affected by vision loss, but the other eye may compensate, and therefore it can be hard to notice the change.
Common Aging Eye Conditions
Just like your body, your eyes and vision change over time. While not everyone will experience the same symptoms, Dr. Robert Layman, American Optometric Association (AOA) president and practicing optometrist, says the following are common age-related vision changes:
- Need for more light. As you age, you need more light to see as well as you used to.
- Difficulty reading and doing close work. Printed materials can become less clear, in part because the lens in your eye becomes less flexible over time. This makes it harder for your eyes to focus on near objects than when you were younger.
- Problems with glare. When driving, you may notice additional glare from headlights at night or the sun reflecting off windshields or pavement during the day. Changes in the lenses in your eyes cause light entering the eye to be scattered rather than focused precisely on the retina — and this creates more glare.
- Changes in color perception. The normally clear lens located inside your eye may start to discolor. This makes it harder to see and distinguish between certain color shades.
- Reduced tear production. With age, the tear glands in your eyes will produce fewer tears. This is particularly true for women experiencing hormone changes. As a result, your eyes may feel dry and irritated.
“In the years after you turn 60, a number of eye diseases may develop that can change your vision permanently, including age-related macular degeneration (AMD), cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, dry eye, glaucoma, and retinal detachment,” says Dr. Layman. “The earlier these problems are detected and treated, the more likely you can retain good vision. Patients in their 70s and above need to be especially conscientious about monitoring changes in their vision or discomfort to their eyes and not only get a comprehensive eye exam each year but also be prepared to visit their optometrist immediately for any eye concerns.”
8 Ways to Protect Aging Eyes
There are several ways to protect your vision as you age, from diet and exercise to lifestyle choices. These include:
- Schedule yearly comprehensive eye examinations. Annual in-person, comprehensive eye exams are one of the most important, preventive ways to preserve vision. But did you know they can also catch so much more? “The in-person comprehensive eye exams we perform go far beyond vision and can detect more than 270 serious health conditions including diabetes, high blood pressure, autoimmune diseases, and even some forms of cancer,” says Dr. Layman. “By overlooking your eyesight, you can miss a lot of important information around your overall eye health and potentially other issues. In 2020, for example, optometrists identified signs of diabetes in nearly 431,000 patients who did not know they had the condition.
- Don sun protection. When in bright sunlight, wearing a broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses is helpful to protect your eyes from ultraviolet (UV) damage. “Increased UV light can cause changes to the metabolism of cells in the retina and lens,” explains Dr. Wood. “It is important that sunglasses protect against both UV-A and UV-B light.”
- Give your eyes a break from digital device use. Dr. Layman says that most Americans, including children, spend at least seven hours or more a day using computers or other digital devices such as tablets and smartphones. This constant activity increases the risk for dry eye, eyestrain, headaches, and fatigue. There are a few ways to protect your eyes from harmful blue light, including the AOA’s recommendation for practicing the 20-20-20 rule — every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break and look at something 20 feet away.
- Exercise. Enjoying regular activity and maintaining a healthy weight can be very beneficial for eye health. In addition to the cardiovascular benefits of exercise, Dr. Wood says studies have found that regular exercise over the course of several years reduces the risk of vision loss. “This is likely a result of improved blood flow, less inflammation, and less oxidative stress,” he says.
- Eat your greens. As part of a healthy diet, eat five servings of fruits and vegetables each day — particularly leafy greens such as spinach and kale. “Nutrients such as the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, essential fatty acids, vitamins C and E, and the mineral zinc, help protect eyesight and promote eye health,” says Dr. Layman. “Since the body doesn’t make these nutrients naturally, it’s important that they are incorporated into a daily diet and, in some cases, supplemented with vitamins.”
- Control blood sugar and blood pressure. Because the cells in your retina consume more oxygen per unit volume than any other tissue in your body, Dr. Wood says they are very sensitive to changes in metabolism and blood flow. Whether or not you have diabetes, maintaining steady blood sugar and blood pressure is less stressful for your body including the cells in your eye.
- Stop smoking. Current and former smokers have a higher rate of macular degeneration and cataracts compared to non-smokers, says Dr. Wood. “This is due to many factors including oxidative stress which is a central component of aging,” he explains. “If you do smoke, stopping smoking is likely the single most beneficial thing you can do for your eye health.”
- Manage other health conditions. Health problems that affect other parts of your body can affect your vision as well. “People with diabetes or high blood pressure, or who are taking medications that have eye-related side effects, are at greatest risk for developing vision problems,” says Dr. Layman.