The eyes have it: See that you take care of yours
By Barbara Sherf
Ophthalmologist Christina McGowan of Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia encourages her patients to a keep a close eye on their eye care appointments.
“The big message for people is: We are here and ready to take care of you,” McGowan said. “During this time of COVID, we are taking extra precautionary measures so people feel safe coming in for eye exams and do not risk losing their sight. I cannot stress the importance of good eye care.”
Many eye conditions affecting older adults are not reversible, according to McGowan. So it’s important to be diagnosed and treated as soon as possible to prevent further damage to your eyes and sight. Some of the most common eye conditions for seniors are described below.
It is estimated that only half of the people with glaucoma even know they have it. The disease damages the optic nerve, which collects visual information from the retina and transmits it to the brain. Early in the disease process, patients experience loss of peripheral vision, but it may go unnoticed until it becomes more advanced and affects central vision. Glaucoma causes irreversible damage, which can lead to blindness, so it is vital to catch the disease early.
McGowan recommends a dilated eye exam, which is the best way to detect glaucoma, starting at age 50. If you have a family history of glaucoma, you should get tested sooner. “The goal of treatment is to reduce eye pressure,” said McGowan. “That can be done with medicated eye drops or a laser procedure, but may require additional surgical interventions as it progresses.”
Cataracts develop when you get older, and there is nothing you can do to prevent them. However, quitting smoking, eating a healthy Mediterranean diet, controlling your blood sugar and blood pressure, and exercising can help to minimize cataracts.
“People typically complain about blurry vision and glare from car headlights at night,” McGowan said. “Treatment is cataract surgery in which the old lens is removed and a new lens is inserted into the eye. This is a constantly evolving field and cataract surgery can now incorporate the use of lasers and new 3D technology.”
Age-related macular degeneration
A serious eye issue facing seniors is age-related macular degeneration (AMD). This progressive disease causes damage to the macula, the part of your eye responsible for central vision. It’s the leading cause of vision loss in people over 50.
Dry AMD, which can cause blindness, involves a thinning of the macula or the center of the retina. The dry form comes in different stages: early, intermediate and advanced/late stage.
“Often, a patient experiences blurred vision, and it can progress to devastating central vision loss,” McGowan said.
For dry AMD, McGowan recommends lifestyle changes, including quitting smoking; regular exercise; controlling blood pressure; and eating a diet rich in Omega 3s, such as fish and green leafy vegetables. For intermediate or advanced stages, the dietary supplement called AREDS 2 contains a specific mix of nutrients that has been shown in randomized trials by the National Eye Institute to slow the progression of AMD.
“AREDS 2 vitamins should not be used as a preventive measure, but taken only when you are advised to start them by your eye care specialist,” said McGowan.
Wet AMD occurs when abnormal blood vessels growing under the retina leak and cause scarring. There are drugs that are injected into the eye to help stop the bleeding.
“Patients tolerate [the injections] really well,” McGowan said. “Mentally, they have to get over the fact that a needle is inserted into the eye. The eye is numbed up very well, and patients experience minimal discomfort. Patients typically start out with injections once a month and are followed closely by a retina specialist to track their progress.”
Uncontrolled, elevated blood sugar damages blood vessels in the retina, causing a leakage of fluid into the tissue. Diabetic retinopathy can be controlled by lifestyle changes.
”It’s important to stay on top of it, as it can be very devastating,” McGowan said. “This week, I saw someone who presented for his first eye exam with advanced disease that, left untreated, could have resulted in blindness.”
Diabetics should monitor their blood hemoglobin A1c level, which determines how well-controlled their diabetes is. “You really need to know this value and tell your eye care specialist at each visit,” McGowan recommends.
Dry eyes are a common complaint with aging patients, according to McGowan. “Initially, this condition can be treated with over-the-counter eye drops and ointments, warm compresses, and lid hygiene. The compresses help unclog blocked oil glands and improve the oil component of your natural tears,” she said.
You should not try to self-diagnose or self-treat any eye condition. In order to maintain your eye health, visiting an eye care professional is vital.
“The outcomes of eye conditions are typically better the earlier they are found, and lifestyle changes can be very important to prevent further decline,” stressed McGowan. “It is so important to get eye exams at least annually, which are covered by Medicare.”
For more information, visit WillsEye.org.
Author and speaker Barbara Sherf captures the stories of businesses and individuals.