Aging gracefully: Keeping your eyes healthy as you age

WASHINGTON — Want to prevent vision loss as you get older? It’s time to slip on some shades and bulk up on berries.

Dr. Mark Gonzalez, an ophthalmologist with the MedStar Eye Institute at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, says most people start to detect a decline in their vision around the age of 40.

If you have to hold this article at a distance in order to read it clearly, you’re already familiar with this change.

“What happens at this stage, is basically the crystalline lens of the eye becomes a little bit more rigid, so people lose that ability to see up close, and that’s when you see a lot of people using reading glasses,” Gonzalez says.

Around the age of 60, a glare may become more noticeable. Gonzalez says this is usually a sign that cataracts are forming.

“Inside your eye, there’s a small lens. It’s really like a magnifying glass, and its job is to focus the light on the back of the eye,” he says.

But as you age, that lens may become cloudy.

“But it’s not actually a cloud; it’s the natural fogging or clouding of the lens. It’s a natural process that happens to people as they get older. It’s kind of like if your car had a foggy windshield. You wouldn’t be able to see through it very well, and if you had spots that were foggier than others, you might see glare or reflection.”

If a cataract becomes bothersome enough, the natural lens can be replaced with a synthetic lens to correct the vision.

Macular degeneration is another common age-related eye disease, and is the leading cause of vision loss and blindness among Americans age 65 and older.

It happens when yellowish spots, known as drusen, accumulate in the retina. Over time, this can lead to a central blind spot in the eye.

In a more progressive version of the disease, called wet macular degeneration, blood vessels below the retina leak blood and fluid and cause “a very quick loss of central vision,” Gonzalez says.

“So trying to prevent — especially the wet type of macular degeneration — is important.”

And there are ways to prevent it.

Macular degeneration runs in families, Gonzalez says, so knowing your family history is the first step.

Diet also plays an important role in age-related eye disease. Studies show eating foods rich in antioxidants helps prevent or slow the progression of macular degeneration. Vitamins A, C, E and zinc have also been proven to help.

“Doing things like eating a lot of green leafy vegetables, a lot of fresh berries and a lot of varied vegetables and citrus fruits — those have all been shown to help prevent progression of macular degeneration,” Gonzalez says.

Like many other age-related diseases, macular degeneration can also be prevented by staying smoke-free.

“People who have high blood pressure and uncontrolled cholesterol also progress more quickly with macular degeneration. Controlling those things also help in the progression of the disease,” Gonzalez adds.

Finally, a good pair of sunglasses can go a long way when it comes to keeping your eyes healthy throughout life. Reducing your UV exposure reduces free radical formation within the retina.

And there’s good news for those chained to a computer all day. Gonzalez says starring at a screen for hours on end won’t impact the way your eyes age, but will cause discomfort and dryness. His best piece of advice is to stay hydrated and use lubricated eye drops for relief.

Gonzalez also recommends scheduling an eye exam on a yearly basis. If the doctor notices anything abnormal, he can alert you to the next steps.

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