Eye diseases can affect people of all ages, but people over the age of 40 are especially at risk for them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In fact, age-related vision problems — including cataracts, glaucoma, and more — are the primary cause of blindness and low vision in the United States, which affects more than 3.3 million Americans aged 40 and older.
Here are some of the most common eye conditions in the United States — and what you can do about them.
A cataract, or "clouding" of the eye lens, is the leading cause of vision loss in the United States. Starting at around the age of 40, proteins in the eye's lens start to break down, causing the lens to become cloudy, says the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). That, in turn, causes symptoms like blurry vision, double vision, and sensitivity to light.
What can you do: Since the sunlight can damage your eyes, the AAO says that wearing sunglasses (ideally, those that block at least 99 percent of UV rays) may slow down the development of cataracts. If you already have cataracts, you can also have them surgically removed; a surgeon will remove the cloudy lens and replace it with a clear, artificial lens called an intraocular lens.
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Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases that occur when the optic nerve (i.e., the nerve that connects the eye to the brain) becomes damaged. Oftentimes, says the American Optometric Association (AOA), this damage occurs when fluid pressure builds up in the eye. At first, people can experience a loss of peripheral vision, but over time, the disease can damage their central vision, too.
What can you do: Glaucoma is the second-leading cause of blindness in the United States, and can't currently be prevented, according to the AOA. Because the disease develops slowly and often doesn't have any symptoms in the early stages, many people aren't aware that they have glaucoma until they start experiencing vision loss. Your doctor can diagnose the condition with a comprehensive eye exam; treatments include medication to lower the pressure in the eye, or surgical procedures that help drain the fluid.
About 12 million Americans aged 65 and older have diabetes, a disease that's characterized by high blood sugar levels, according to the American Diabetes Association. One of its complications is diabetic retinopathy. This eye condition occurs when a person has too much sugar in their blood, which can damage the tiny blood vessels that connect to the retina (the part of the eye that detects light).
What can you do: If you have diabetes, be sure to tell your eye doctor about it. He or she may want you to schedule annual eye exams to screen for diabetic retinopathy. Some people may be able to prevent diabetic retinopathy (or manage it) by lowering their blood sugar levels with medication, diet or exercise, says the National Eye Institute (NEI), whereas other people may need injections, laser treatment, or eye surgery to keep their vision from getting worse.
Age-related macular degeneration
Age-related macular degeneration, also known as AMD, is the leading cause of vision loss in people aged 50 and older, according to the NEI. Many people who develop AMD first notice blurry spots in their vision, which can grow larger over time. There are two forms: Dry AMD, which occurs when the macula in the eye grows thinner with age, accounts for about 70 to 90% of all cases, according to the CDC; wet AMD occurs when abnormal blood vessels start to grow under the macula.
What can you do: Your eye doctor will screen you for AMD as part of a comprehensive eye exam. Some forms of advanced AMD can't be treated, but the U.S. National Library of Medicine points out that taking certain vitamins (including vitamin C, beta-carotene, zinc and copper) might help prevent early AMD from getting worse. (Talk to your doctor before using any kind of supplement, however.) Wet AMD can be treated with laser surgery and eye injections.
One of the best ways to prevent vision loss from eye diseases (or ward off eye conditions altogether) is by scheduling regular appointments with your optometrist or ophthalmologist, who can perform a comprehensive eye exam that's designed to spot eye diseases in their early stages.
The AOA recommends that people aged 40 to 64 see their doctor at least every 1 to 2 years, while people aged 65 and older should see their eye doctor at least annually.
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