After a lifetime of clear vision, Dr. Jacqueline Hott began to worry about her eyesight shortly after her 80th birthday party.
“Anything peripheral fell into the shadows,” she recalls. As the shadows grew and worsened—and a fender bender scared her enough to stop driving—she went in for a checkup.
Despite a healthy lifestyle and minimal risk factors, she was diagnosed with glaucoma. Now 88, Hott has had several surgical procedures to stave off further vision loss, unfortunately without success. While glaucoma has not stopped her from continuing her full-time work as a psychotherapist in Great Neck, New York, she is now legally blind and often needs to ask others for help.
Hott is one of an estimated 3 million Americans who suffer from this degenerative eye disease. Glaucoma, cataracts and macular degeneration are some of the most common health concerns adults face as they age, and the leading causes of blindness, according to the Glaucoma Research Foundation.
Fortunately, preventive measures and treatments may help preserve eye health and help those who are already living with limited vision to remain active and engaged in daily life.
Glaucoma is a diagnosis that encompasses several eye conditions often involving damage to the optic nerve, according to the Mayo Clinic. These complex conditions are often characterized by higher-than-normal pressure inside the eye, and symptoms tend to worsen over the span of the disease (potentially leading to complete vision loss).
The risk of glaucoma increases with age, so older adults are particularly susceptible. But even babies can be born with the condition, and it can emerge at any age.
“Glaucoma is something we really need to screen for,” says Dr. Samantha Weller, an ophthalmologist and associate professor at Loma Linda University Medical Center who treats seniors for vision issues. “It’s a silent disease—you don’t notice you’re losing your side vision until it’s quite advanced.”
Regular vision screenings can catch some types of glaucoma. Weller recommends people age 55 and older have an annual dilated eye exam to rule out stealthier forms. While healthy lifestyle choices such as eating well, staying active, not smoking and protecting eyes with sunglasses offer insurance against diabetic conditions and some eye problems, Weller says none has been proven to prevent or lessen the effects of glaucoma. This makes annual vision screenings more important than ever.
While there is no cure for glaucoma and it is not reversible, if you are diagnosed, different treatments may help reduce the pressure in your eye. Medications and eye drops have come a long way and may actually help you avoid surgery if you take them consistently, Weller says. If surgery is necessary, laser technology and new techniques are more effective than ever before.
Cataracts are another degenerative condition characterized by intraocular pressure, as well as the clouding of the normally clear lens of the eye.
The greatest risk factor for cataracts is simply age, according to Dr. Sandy Feldman, an ophthalmologist and corneal surgeon who treats seniors at Clearview Eye and Laser Medical Center in San Diego.
“As we age, the lens becomes denser and less clear,” she says. “As it becomes more opaque, it’s like looking through frosted glass.”
Glasses can help, but when cataracts start to affect everyday activities, Feldman recommends cataract surgery, as it has a very high success rate. In many cases, a surgeon can remove that clouded lens and replace it with an artificial implant that can restore vision almost entirely.
Macular degeneration generally affects the part of the retina that provides central vision. That portion of the eye is key for everyday tasks such as reading and driving, recognizing faces or reading the hands on a clock, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
There are two types of macular degeneration: dry and wet. Dry macular degeneration is the most common among seniors and typically progresses gradually, according to Weller. It is characterized by drusen, small yellow deposits under the retina that can blur vision. About 10 percent of macular degeneration patients have the wet form, which is characterized by more substantial abnormal growth in the eye and a much faster progression.
A number of studies are examining diet, vitamin supplements like vitamin A and injection treatments as promising ways to stave off or slow this type of vision loss, says Weller.
“It’s amazing, the treatment options that have been developed in the past 10 or 15 years,” says Weller.