The ageing eye
How the inner workings of the eye change over time – and what it means for your vision.
As we get older, many of our body parts start to show wear and tear. Our blood vessels and arteries become stiffer so our body has to work harder to pump blood, which can lead to high blood pressure. Our bones become thinner. Our skin becomes less elastic. Our muscles weaken, and the cartilage that cushions our joints begins to wear thin.
Then there’s the eye. The eye is made of many parts, each with a specific job, just like a camera but more complex,. When we hit our late 40s or early 50s, some of the workings of the eye become less efficient. Naturally, this can lead to a number of problems, from as harmless as not being able to read a menu without reading glasses to more serious conditions that threaten vision.
Most people will need reading glasses at some stage of their life. Two factors are at play here – the natural lens of the eye and the muscles that surround the lens.
When we want to see an item that is in near vision range, the muscles around the extremely malleable lens instinctively flex. This causes the lens to curve, allowing us to focus on the message.
Around our fifth decade, the lens of the eye becomes larger and less flexible, and the effectiveness of the muscles weaken. So at some stage we will all have to either buy a pair of reading glasses or change our current prescription to bifocals. However, now there are other alternatives – laser eye surgery, or if you have cataract, cataract surgery can be the solution.
Modern cataract surgery is now so sophisticated that surgeons can tailor the result to minimise your reliance on glasses. The natural lens of the eye is made up of proteins that, with age, harden and gradually blur your vision, thus forming a cataract. Cataract surgery involves removing the natural lens of the eye and replacing it with an artificial lens, so the dull, cloudy vision becomes clear again.
People who have had cataract surgery find their dependence on glasses is greatly reduced or even eliminated.
"It is possible to significantly reduce your risk of macular degeneration by eating a diet rich in leafy greens, colourful fruit and vegetables and oily fish."
Retina (lining of the eye) problems
Our eyes are filled with a jelly-like liquid called the vitreous. With age, the vitreous liquefies and collapses, just as real jelly does. The problem with this is that as it collapses, it can sometimes tug on the retina (a thin layer of tissue at the back of the eye), causing a hole or a tear in the retina. This hole or tear can allow the retina to come away and is known as retinal detachment. Since the retina acts as the ‘film’ that allows our brain to process what we see, any detachment of the retina is a potentially blinding condition. Indications are seeing floaters, flashing lights or a dark shadow in your visual field.
A retinal detachment or vitreous detachment is considered a medical emergency and needs to be assessed by an eye specialist immediately.
The macula is an area on the retina that is responsible for fine detailed vision, including recognising faces, appreciating colour and reading. Any damage to the macula causes loss of central vision or distortion. You can use a special grid called an ‘Amsler Grid’ to help detect early signs of distortion.
It is possible to significantly reduce your risk of macular degeneration by eating a diet rich in leafy greens, colourful fruit and vegetables and oily fish. Smoking increases your risk so avoid it altogether.
Everyone over the age of 40 should be checked regularly for glaucoma because it’s a sneaky disorder – at first asymptomatic, it can slowly cause vision loss – and once that vision has gone, it’s gone for life. People with a close relative with glaucoma are at higher risk. Early diagnosis and early treatment protects your eyesight. Modern tests can diagnose glaucoma earlier so treatment can be started before any damage affects your vision. The good news is that once diagnosed, there are many successful treatments that can slow down or even stop the vision loss.
Here’s your prognosis
Once you hit 50, you should have regular check-ups with your optometrist. This check-up isn’t just to see if you need a different prescription – it’s to ensure that the many amazing parts of the eye are still functioning as they are meant to.