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Notes from Youville: Facing up to Vision Loss

Joanne Parsons, president and CEO of Youville Assisted Living, provides a brief overview of common visual ailments affecting seniors today.

 

When was your last eye exam? If it’s been so long that you can’t remember, now might be a good time to call your ophthalmologist–– especially if you are over 60.

Today, over 7 million seniors suffer from decreasing vision. Over the next few decades, that tally is expected to double as the senior population increases. 

Research is still making important discoveries about the causes of vision loss.  Some conditions, like cataracts, now have surgical cures that work for almost everyone. Others, like macular degeneration, have less effective treatments and the root causes are still unclear.

The following is a brief overview of common visual ailments affecting seniors today:

Age-related macular degeneration: This is the most common type of vision loss. It rarely leads to total blindness, but seriously impairs central vision. This disease attacks the macula, a highly specialized region of the retina that allows us to see fine detail. People with AMD have trouble recognizing faces, detail and other objects without adequate light. They will have blind or blurry spots at the center of their field of vision, and have to rely on their peripheral vision. 

If AMD has not yet reached its advanced stage, an eye doctor may suggest the “AREDS supplement,” a high dosage of antioxidants and zinc. This supplement can help delay the onset of advanced macular degeneration. Ocular injections are also available that help stop the growth of leaky blood vessels that cause ‘wet’ macular degeneration. This treatment can slow vision loss and sometimes improve vision. Other treatment options– with variable results– include laser surgery and photo dynamic therapy.

Cataracts: These form on the lens of the eye and affect the way light travels to the retina. The lens becomes cloudy and scatters light as it passes through, making vision blurry. Fortunately, cataracts can be removed by surgery.

Glaucoma: This disease occurs when there is too much pressure in the eye.  Eventually this pressure damages the ocular nerve, leading to blurry vision and sometimes blindness.  Glaucoma is often painless and symptom free until irreparable damage has been done. The pressure in the eyes caused by glaucoma can be relieved by eye drops; in some cases surgery is be helpful.   

Preventing Vision Loss

Studies have suggested that regular eye exams and the adoption of certain “vision-healthy foods” are among the best known ways to prevent vision loss. Consider adopting these simple changes to your diet and life-style.

Eat lots of dark greens and colorful vegetables. These are high in antioxidants, which help keep vision strong. In particular, the antioxidant “lutein” is believed to be especially good for preserving central vision. Lutein exists in leafy green vegetables like spinach, collard greens and kale. 

Omega-3 fatty acids benefit the eyes and the brain. Omega-3s exists in fish and fish oils, with especially high levels occurring in wild salmon  and tuna. Other ways to get omega-3 are through supplements, olive oil, walnuts, avocados, flax seeds and flax oil. Avoid saturated fats, trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils. 

Keep your heart healthy and your blood pressure low. The eyes have many arteries running through them, and data suggests that people with poor cardiovascular health are at increased risk of AMD.

Be sure to get regular eye exams. Especially if you have diabetes or other health problems. Diabetes is a risk factor for cataract and glaucoma, as well as diabetic retinopathy, a disease that causes spotty vision. 

Wear sunglasses. Ultraviolet light from the sun may lead to cataracts and macular degeneration. Ask your doctor about a good brand of sunglasses with protection against ultraviolet rays.

Stop smoking. People who smoke are more likely to have cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration. Not only does smoking increase blood pressure and damage the arteries, it also decreases our ability to absorb lutein, one of the most effective antioxidants against macular degeneration. 

Living with Impaired Vision

If vision loss has made it harder for you to read or see things in your environment, consider “going large.” Remote controls, telephones and digital clocks are all available with extra large displays and buttons, that can make life much easier. Ask your librarian about large-print books.

Some people use scanners or simple magnifying glasses to help enlarge material that is too small to see. Light can be a big help. Keep your living space brightly lit and clutter free.  

Most importantly, remember that you’re not alone. Millions of people throughout the US cope with impaired vision every day.

Make your needs known to those around you. Talk with family and friends about your changing experiences and be sure to have regular eye exams so that both you and your doctor can stay on top of your condition.

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