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Eye Changes with Age

Excerpt from: A Harvard Medical School Book, The Aging Eye

Just as hair turns gray and skin sags, the eyes, too, undergo a metamorphosis as the years pass. Though many of these changes are part of normal aging, some are not. Abnormal changes associated with aging set the stage for more serious vision problems.

Safeguard Your Sight
There’s a lot you can do to protect your vision, now and in the future. It’s estimated that at least one-third of the new cases of blindness, for example, could have been averted with preventive care and early diagnosis. Many eye diseases can be reversed or prevented from progressing when they’re detected in their early stages.

Unfortunately, many of us aren’t as conscientious about caring for our eyes as we are about our other body parts. People tend to take their eyes for granted unless there’s a problem, such as blurred vision, redness or pain. However, ask people which of their senses they’re most afraid of losing and chances are the majority will say sight. Nonetheless, despite reminders to get regular eye exams, we often neglect to visit an ophthalmologist.

Sight-Saving Superstars
Studies suggest that one particular category of antioxidants, called carotenoids, may play a role in maintaining  your eye health, as well as enhancing your overall resistance to disease. Carotenoids are antioxidants that give fruits and vegetables their natural color – the red of a tomato, for example, on the green of broccoli. Two carotenoids in particular, lutein and zeaxanthin, which are related to the antioxidant beta-carotene, may be particularly beneficial in protecting eye health. (Both lutein and zeaxanthin are found in large quantities in the retina and in the lens.)

According to subsets of two major Harvard Medical School studies – the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals’ Follow-up Study-in which 77,000 women and 36,000 men were monitored after twelve years, those who ate the most lutein and zeaxanthin had about a 20 percent lower risk of cataract surgery than those who ate the least.
Moreover, lutein and zeaxanthin aren’t the only substances in food thought to potentially impact eye health. The groundbreaking Eye Disease Case-Control Study which involved 676 participants, 356 of whom had advanced stages of age-related macular degeneration, showed that those who consumed more carotenoids in general (such as lycopene, the carotenoid in tomatoes) decreased the risk of age-related macular degeneration by 43 percent. Moreover, vitamin C (also an antioxidant) may be a contender. Studies of women in their fifties, sixties, and seventies have shown that those who consumed sizeable amounts of vitamin C had fewer cataracts. Other studies have also shown that nutrients such as vitamin E, selenium, folic acid, vitamin A (which converts to beta-carotene in the body), zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids (the heart-healthy fat found in fish and other foods) may also protect the eye from age-related disease.

As you have learned, millions of Americans age forty and older are affected each year by glaucoma, cataracts, and age-related macular degeneration-three leading causes of blindness or impaired vision. One in six adults age forty-five and older has some sort of vision problem. The risk of developing a serious, potentially irreversible eye disorder increases with age. In fact, those with diabetes are almost twice as likely to develop cataracts and glaucoma than those who don’t.

It doesn’t have to happen. Although aging puts you at greater risk for these serious eye diseases and other eye problems, loss of sight doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with growing older. There’s a lot you can do to preserve your vision-preventive measures can help protect you against devastating vision impairment. An estimated 40 to 50 percent of all blindness can be avoided or treated.