Everyone is familiar with the common effects that aging can have on the body. As cartilage and muscle tissue start to break down, early morning aches and joint pain become a frequent occurrence, and the skin begins to sag and wrinkle as it loses its natural elasticity and volume. However, many do not realize that these very same biological processes can have significant effects on the vision as well. At Georgia Eye Physicians and Surgeons, we believe that understanding what causes the vision to deteriorate, and the steps that can help minimize that deterioration, begins with a basic understanding of how the eye works.
First, light entering the eye must pass through its clear outer surface, or cornea, which is kept smooth, clean, and lubricated by a thin coating of tears. These tears are produced by specialized cells in the eyelids, but damage from environmental factors like smoke, pollution, and ultraviolent light can, over time, cause the eyelids to become inflamed, potentially impairing tear production. This condition, commonly known as blepharitis, creates the sensation that a cloudy “film” is covering the eye, partly obscuring vision. As evaporation of the tears and drying out of the corneal surface gets worse, the condition can evolve into chronic dry eye, which may require the use of surgical tear plugs to fully relieve. In the early stages, however, blepharitis can be treated simply with warm compresses, artificial tears, oral antibiotics and even topical immunosuppressive agents that decrease the inflammatory response.
Once the light enters the eye it is focused by a clear, flexible lens, which can be made thicker or thinner, changing the focal point as needed, by the action of the tiny muscles that surround it. Unfortunately, like all muscles in the body, these muscles tend to become weaker and less pliable as they grow older. Because it takes more muscle tension to focus on nearby objects, the lens can slowly lose that ability, resulting in presbyopia. Nearly all men and women begin to experience the effects of presbyopia once they reach their forties and find it more difficult, for example, to focus clearly on small print without holding it further from the eyes. Fortunately, presbyopia can be easily addressed with prescription bifocals or, in some cases, simply with magnifying reading glasses.
Finally, after being focused by the lens, light stimulates the photosensitive cells that line the retina at the back of the eye. These specialized nerve cells translate this input into electrochemical signals that are transmitted, via the optic nerve, to the brain. As certain patients get older, yellow deposits called drusen begin form in the center of the retina, distorting vision. This age-related macular degeneration most commonly occurs in men and women over the age of sixty, but may also occur much earlier, and typically causes a slight distortion in the center of their vision that can gradually grow worse until it eventually becomes an empty area or blind spot, making it extremely difficult to perform common, everyday tasks like reading or driving. Macular degeneration cannot be cured, but in some cases its progression can be slowed with a combination of regular exercise and a healthy diet high in green, leafy vegetables and fish.
Aging eyes can also be susceptible to a number of other, potentially serious vision conditions, like cataracts, glaucoma, or diabetic retinopathy. Because these diseases tend to develop gradually, and may not manifest noticeable symptoms in the earliest stages, it is extremely important to undergo regular comprehensive eye examinations at least once between the ages of 20 and 29, at least twice between the ages of 30 and 39, and every one to two years, beginning at the age of 40, as recommended by the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). Catching these conditions early gives us more options to treat them before they have the opportunity to cause serious, long-term damage. If you have questions about your vision, or would like to schedule an appointment for an eye exam, please contact Georgia Eye Physicians and Surgeons today to make an appointment with Dr. William Segal or Dr. Marc Lay. Be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ for more tips for healthy eyes.