The number of cases of blindness and visual impairment among Americans continues to increase. In research studies published in May 19, 2016, JAMA Ophthalmology, findings by Rohit Varma, MD, MPH, and fellow researchers predicted the number of people affected to reach more than 8 million by 2050.
The group of Americans over the age of 50 years is the most vulnerable to visual impairment and blindness. A person reaching 60 years old is in a separate “senior” category according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). At this age and older, medical groups have specific suggestions and tips for ways seniors can prevent vision loss and blindness.
1. Take precautions in the home to prevent traumatic eye injuries.
The changes the body undergoes as it ages increase the risk of falls for seniors. These changes include reduced muscle strength, lower flexibility levels, a decreased sense of balance and less endurance during physical activity. Together, these factors contribute to the fact that 25 percent of people in the United States who are age 65 years or older will fall every year, according to the National Council on Aging (NCOA).
According to the AAO, eye trauma resulting from a fall is a concern for any senior who wants to preserve vision. A study published in the January 2019, JAMA Ophthalmology showed a nearly 20 percent increase in the number of people hospitalized with eye trauma over a period of 13 years. According to the study, led by Mustafa Iftikhar, MD, the increase was primarily attributed to people over the age of 65 years old who had experienced a fall. Apart from temporary effects such as corneal abrasions, ocular trauma can also lead to the development of cataracts or, in some cases, secondary glaucoma.
To protect themselves from vision loss due to traumatic eye injury, seniors should take steps to enhance safety around their homes. This can include ensuring all rugs and bathroom mats in the home are slip-proof, securing unstable railings and applying cushioning to sharp corners on furniture. Additionally, seniors should be sure to wear protective eyeglasses or safety goggles when using electric and non-electric tools in the event of an accident.
2. Eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly.
The classic medical recommendation of a healthy diet, plenty of sleep and regular exercise are still important for seniors. These three lifestyle choices are specifically beneficial to seniors’ vision for several reasons.
First, eating healthy and exercising can impact vision by preventing development of illnesses that may cause conditions leading to blindness. For example, many older individuals struggle with diabetes, which can lead to diabetic retinopathy. Healthy habits can also help seniors maintain good blood pressure and cholesterol levels, which help avoid conditions that could damage to the retina. The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends two-and-a-half hours of moderate aerobic exercise every week for seniors. To improve eye health, physicians recommend a diet with plenty of leafy green vegetables and oily fish, or other healthy foods with vitamins A and C, as well as omega-3 fatty acids.
3. Get plenty of sleep.
Many seniors experience difficulty in sleeping as they age, which prevents them from getting a healthy amount of rest. Factors commonly contributing to sleep issues include breathing disorders, side effects from medications taken for health conditions and insomnia.
In addition to the emotional and health issues associated with sleep deprivation, poor sleep among seniors can also lead to poor eye health and vision loss. Sleep is critical to the eye’s ability to replenish itself through continuous lubrication at night. Sleep is also when the body clears allergens, smoke and dust from the eyes, preventing irritants from building up. Over time, people who do not give their eyes enough time to rest during sleep risk developing dry eye, which can lead to blurred vision, or even popped blood vessels caused by eye strain. Seniors with a long history of sleep apnea have also been known to experience vision loss from anterior ischemic optic neuropathy (AION), an inflammation of the blood vessels that causes damage to the optic nerve.
The medical community generally agrees that a minimum of five hours of sleep per night is needed to give the eyes the rest they need.
4. Don’t skip visits to the eye doctor.
For people aged 65 years and older, the AAO recommends a visit to a licensed ophthalmologist once every one or two years. Seniors who are considered at risk of developing serious, blindness-causing diseases should see an ophthalmologist on an annual basis. Factors putting a person at risk include a family history of diseases such as macular degeneration or glaucoma, a previous traumatic injury to the eye and health conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes.
An important aspect for seniors to remember about ophthalmologic checkups is it is important to make these appointments whether or not there are physical symptoms of an eye condition. The most common diseases causing severe, irreversible vision loss in the United States do not show symptoms in the earliest stages, when there is the best chance of treatment to retain their eyesight and prevent blindness.