Keep your eyes healthy

Your eyes: not only are they the windows of your soul, they’re also windows to your health. Clear vision signals good overall health, and each part of the eye – cornea, lens, vitreous gel, macula, retina and optic nerve – must be in good working order for clear vision.

Here are the four most common eye conditions associated with aging, along with advice on how to keep your eyes healthy and your sight sharp.

Have you ever looked at the sky or a blank piece of paper and seen something float by? Does it look like a tiny cobweb, hair, dot or circle? These unidentified flying objects are floaters. They are a benign condition requiring no medical treatment.

The cause: The vitreous gel, a clear substance inside the eye similar in texture to egg white, is supported by a fishnet-like framework of tiny fibres. As we age, the gel turns more liquid and the fibres tend to break down, detach and float around in the gel, casting various shadowy shapes on the retina. They may be more apparent after cataract surgery or YAG laser operation, a procedure that removes the haze that may occur after cataract surgery.

&l;pWho’s at risk: People with diabetes and nearsightedness tend to develop floaters. But anyone over 50 is susceptible.

What you can do: There is no treatment or cure for floaters. Although annoying, they do not damage the eye. However, floaters can signal other serious conditions such as eye inflammation or infection, detachment of the retina or interior bleeding. If you experience a sudden onset of numerous floaters, a large dark spot, persistent flashes of light or a dark shadow in the periphery of your vision, go to your nearest hospital emergency room.

Dry eyes
Normally, eyes are constantly bathed in tears that contain a mixture of water, fatty oils and bacteria-fighting components. But when your eyes become frequently sore, tired, itchy, achy, blurry or gritty, you may be suffering from dry eye syndrome, which is common as we age. With dry eyes, you could be very sensitive to light or, ironically, experience excessively teary eyes. As a result, it’s commonly misdiagnosed, says ophthalmologist Dr. Calvin Breslin.

The causes: Aging tear glands don’t lubricate the surface of the eyes as well as they used to. Antihistamines, diuretics, hormone replacement therapy and contact lenses may aggravate the dryness. Staring at a computer or television screen reduces blinking, essential for moistening and clearing debris. Rosacea, a skin disorder, and blepharitis, an inflammation of the eyelids, may increase dryness. Dry eyes can also be a symptom of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis or Sjögren’s syndrome (a condition in which white blood cells attack the moisture-producing glands).

Who’s at risk: Dry eyes are more common in postmenopausal women but can also affect men.

What you can do: Standard treatment includes over-the-counter artificial teardrops or ointment. Swimming goggles, wrap-around glasses and humidifiers have provided relief for some people. Taking frequent breaks from computer and television screens helps (remember to blink often while you’re working on screen). Shopping malls and airplanes are typically dry environments; car heaters, air conditioners and hair dryers suck moisture out of the air. Avoid them when possible. If these strategies don’t help, you may consider a minor operation to insert tiny plugs in certain tear ducts that will help keep moisture from draining from the eyes.

Next page: Cataracts, Glaucoma

If you’re seeing halos or glare around lights or experiencing blurred vision, deteriorating night vision or altered colour perception, the crystalline lenses of your eyes may be clouding over, a progressive condition known as cataracts. 

The causes: Nearsightedness, trauma to the eye, diabetes, heredity and years of exposure to sunlight, cigarette smoking and steroids can contribute to opaque lenses.
Who’s at risk: Anyone can develop cata-racts but especially women, smokers and diabetics may be affected. 

What you can do: If your vision is impaired to the point that you can’t work, drive or enjoy pastimes, consider surgery. During the 30-minute operation, the cloudy lens is replaced by a permanent clear plastic one.

Glaucoma is a progressive asymptomatic condition in which the pressure in the vitreous gel builds up. If left untreated, this increased pressure can damage the optic nerve and cause blindness.

The causes: The internal drainage system of the eye stops working properly.

Who’s at risk: Anyone over 50, African Canadians and those with a family history of glaucoma are at increased risk of developing the condition.

What you can do: Your doctor will prescribe topical or oral medication. If you start losing your sight, surgery may be necessary. Glaucoma can also occur suddenly:  a sudden increase in pressure is accompanied by pain, redness, blurred vision and nausea. See a doctor immediately.

Macular degeneration
The macula is responsible for central vision. Age-related macular degeneration is a progressive disease that starts out “dry” with yellow deposits that form under the macula, then progresses to “wet” when blood vessels grow under the retina and bleed. MD usually occurs after 50 in both eyes but at varying rates. It can cause legal blindness, but peripheral vision remains.

The causes: It may be related to exposure to light, including UV, over a lifetime. But no actual cause is known.

Who’s at risk: Anyone over 50 (although it can also occur at younger ages) who has a family history, is a smoker or has fair skin and light eyes.

What you can do: A large FDA study called Age Related Eye Disease Study has shown that antioxidant vitamins (C, E and beta carotene) and zinc can slow progression. In some “wet” cases, early treatment with photodynamic therapy (a special light-activated laser) may be beneficial.