Ask the expert: Vision health as you age

(BPT) - Many people expect their eyesight to decline with age — perhaps requiring a stronger eyeglass prescription or “readers.” Some vision changes are linked to age, but there are steps to consider to help our eyes stay as healthy as possible.

Dr. Linda Chous, OD, chief eye care officer, UnitedHealthcare, answered the following questions:

1. Are my eyes going to keep getting worse as I age?

While your eyesight is not guaranteed to deteriorate with age, it is normal to notice changes to your vision as the years pass, including:

  • 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. It is important to maintain regular appointments with your eye doctor to help identify pressing concerns. If you experience sudden vision loss or any rapid change to your eyesight, contact your eye care provider immediately.

2. What are the tiny spots or specks that float across my vision?

These tiny threads of protein float across the gel-like substance between your eye’s lens and retina.

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

If your vision is overcome by these specks or you notice vision loss, contact your eye doctor, as it could be a symptom of a sight-threatening condition.

3. What are some common vision-related diseases that come with age?

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD)

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

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

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

Cataracts

A cataract is the clouding of the lens in your eye, blocking the flow of light to the back of your eye (retina), which ultimately causes loss of sight. Most form slowly and do not cause pain. Significant clouding can form in some people and, ultimately, negatively impact vision.

Cataracts are treatable via surgery that replaces the clouded lens with a clear plastic lens. Cataract surgery is generally safe and one of the most common surgeries in the U.S. Once a cataract is removed, it cannot grow back.

Glaucoma

Glaucoma is caused by increased pressure inside the eye, which can cause permanent vision loss and blindness if untreated. The most common form usually has no noticeable symptoms in the early stages — the only way to detect it is 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?

Some of the best ways to protect your eyes include:

  • Stop smoking. Smokers are up to four times more likely to develop AMD and may contribute to development of cataracts.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Conditions associated with being overweight, like diabetes and heart disease, increase your risk of vision loss from cataracts, glaucoma and retinopathy.
  • Wear sunglasses. Help protect your eyes from harmful ultraviolet rays.
  • Be physically active. People who are physically active experienced less vision loss over 20 years compared to those who are less active.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Colorful fruits and vegetables contain nutrients that can keep your eyes healthy and reduce AMD risk.

5. Do sunglasses really protect my eyes?

Sunglasses act as a buffer between your eyes and the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. Exposure to these rays can put you at greater risk of cataracts and AMD. Look for a pair that blocks 99% to 100% of UV rays.

Note that polarization is different from UV protection; however, most polarized sunglasses also provide UV protection. Check the product tag or ask for assistance in choosing the right pair.

6. How often should I see my eye care doctor?

Eye exams are crucial to maintaining eye health as you age. Many eye diseases, like glaucoma, have no symptoms in early stages. And many systemic conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, can be first found during a routine eye exam. Aim to see your eye doctor annually even if your vision hasn’t changed, so your doctor has a record of your eye health. See your doctor immediately for sudden changes.

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

Plans insured through UnitedHealthcare Insurance Company or one of its affiliated companies, a Medicare Advantage organization with a Medicare contract. Enrollment in the plan depends on the plan’s contract renewal with Medicare.

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