Serious sight problems aren’t inevitable as you get older, but it is completely normal for your eyesight to change. “We all lose the flexibility to focus on things that are close up and might find it takes longer to adapt to changing lighting conditions,” says Dr Susan Blakeney optometrist, a Clinical Adviser to the College of Optometrists. “It’s important that you don’t ignore these small changes and that you’re aware of the signs and symptoms of more dangerous age-related eye conditions such as glaucoma, cataracts and Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD).”
“Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases in which the optic nerve (which connects your eye to your brain) becomes damaged by the pressure of fluid inside your eye,” says Susan. “Glaucoma can affect one or both of your eyes and it runs in families so if one of your parents, children, or a brother or sister, has glaucoma and you are over 40, the NHS will pay for your eye examination.”
The common form Primary open angle glaucoma (POAG) affects about five per cent of people over 65. It starts in one eye and progresses slowly so you won’t notice any symptoms until you have lost a significant amount of your sight.
“The best way to make sure it’s picked up quickly is to have regular eye examinations with an optometrist,” says Susan. Glaucoma is commonly treated with eye drops, but in some cases surgery is necessary.
A cataract is when the lens of your eye becomes clouded distorting your vision. “Lights may become more dazzling, colours might look faded and you might struggle with the difference between light and shade,” says Susan.
If your cataracts affect your vision your optometrist will refer you to hospital for surgery to remove the cloudy lens and replace it with a clear plastic one. It’s a simple procedure and once the cataract has been removed it won’t come back.
Regularly test your own eyesight so you can quickly pick up if things are changing.
AMD is the most likely cause of vision loss in the UK. “AMD occurs when the small, central part of the retina – your macula – becomes damaged and stops working,” says Susan. It affects the centre of your field of vision and you may find reading difficult and struggle to see faces clearly.
There are two types of AMD. Dry AMD is the most common form and currently there is no treatment. It progresses very slowly and rarely leads to total sight loss. Wet AMD takes hold much faster and can cause blindness. Only about 10 per cent of people have wet AMD and it can be treated with injections if caught early enough.
Regularly test your own eyesight so you can quickly pick up if things are changing. “Check the vision in both of your eyes and in each eye separately,” says Susan. “Look at something with detail on it such as the spine of a book or a car number plate from a particular distance away and regularly check that you can still see it. Wear your glasses if you use them, but check each eye in turn.” Report anything unusual to your optometrist as soon as possible.
Early diagnosis is crucial. Symptoms are not always clear so it’s best to have an eye test at least every two years.
“I cannot stress the importance of regular eye tests enough,” says Susan. “Early diagnosis is crucial. Symptoms are not always clear so it’s best to have an eye test at least every two years.”
Some optometrists are now able to offer more than a standard eye test. High street stores such as Vision Express and Specsavers use retinal scanners to take a picture of the back of your eye. This helps them to detect changes over time and build up a better picture of your eye health.
Other more specialized clinics have machines that can scan your macular and assess your risk of developing AMD (expect to pay around £50 on top of your usual eye test). The optometrist can then suggest appropriate lifestyle adjustments to help you protect your vision for the future and reduce your risk of AMD. To find your nearest independent optometrist offering macular scans call 01223 401469.
“Consider your eyes as part of your overall health and remember that they require as much attention as other parts of your body,” says Susan. “Some lifestyle choices such as smoking, lack of exercise and poor diet could all affect your sight.” According to the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) 50 per cent of sight loss is avoidable with simple life style changes.
Eat plenty of leafy green vegetables such as kale, spinach and broccoli. They are good sources of lutein and zeaxanthin, which are anti-oxidants thought to reduce your risk of AMD and cataracts. Omega three fatty acids from oily fish such as mackerel and sardines could help to reduce inflammation in your eyes and prevent dryness.
Try to maintain a healthy weight and keep an eye on your blood pressure and cholesterol too, if they are high your risk of AMD increases. Regular exercise and a balanced diet with lots of wholegrains are good for your heart health and in turn your eyes too.
If you smoke quitting is one of the best things you can do for your vision. “Being a smoker makes you four times more likely than a non-smoker to develop AMD,” says Susan.
Protecting your eyes from sun damage is also vital. “Cumulative UV exposure over many years could increase your risk of AMD and cataracts,” says Susan. “Look for sunglasses with the CE or BS EN 1836:2005 mark to ensure they provide enough protection from the sun’s rays.”
Taking a specific eye health supplement could help you reduce your risk of sight problems – specifically AMD. Researchers at the National Eye Institute in the US recently completed the second stage of the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS2). They found that a particular blend of nutrients could reduce your risk of developing advanced AMD by 25 per cent if you’re already in the early stages of the disease.
The AREDS2 formulation contains anti-oxidant vitamins C and E and zinc, carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which help your eye absorb damaging blue and ultra violet light and omega-3 fatty acids for retinal health. Try Macushield (£18.33, 30 capsules) call 0121 506 9282, Ocuvite Complete (£16.19, 60 capsules) call 0208 781 2991. You can take these supplements alongside your usual multivitamin.
“A supplement saved my sight”
Alison Connolly (50) from Romford saw her eyesight improve within just one month of taking a vision supplement. “I had a hemorrhage in my right eye 12 years ago. Then last year the same thing happened to my left eye. I was sent to Moorfields Eye Hospital where they discovered that I had tilted retinas. The condition, which I’ve had since birth made my vision cloudy, I couldn’t focus and my central vision was almost gone. I couldn’t read and I was terrified of losing my sight and independence. My doctor recommended the supplement Macushield because I wasn’t suitable for surgery. Within a month I noticed my sight was clearer and at my three month check up my vision was significantly better on all the tests. I can read again, everything is in focus and I feel more confident. I can’t quite believe a supplement could make so much difference. Macushield (£18.33, 30 capsules) call 0121 506 9282.