Maybe your eyesight is cloudy. Maybe the center of your view is blurred. Maybe you just can’t see as well as you used to.
Of course, some changes in vision are normal as we age: most people in their mid-40s and up need to use glasses or contacts. One big reason: at middle age, the lenses in our eyes become less flexible and erode our ability to read and see objects up close.
Because of that, it’s also all too common for older adults to write off eye changes as normal—and that’s not always the case.
There are also eye diseases mainly found in older people that cause vision loss, including cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, and age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Upwards of 37 million people aged 40 and older have these ailments, according to the National Eye Institute.
And not only does a loss of sight curb independence and harm quality of life, but it can even contribute to cognitive decline, according to a 2018 study published in JAMA Ophthalmology.
Unfortunately, there’s no magic pill to ward off eye problems—but you can lower your risk. Here’s what you need to know.
Know your odds
A 2018 University of Michigan poll of older adults found that 89% knew they should have regular eye exams—but many postponed them.
And that’s a problem, because treatable conditions like glaucoma, which damages your optic nerve, and AMD, which creates blind spots in your vision, don’t necessarily have warning signs. However, they can be pinpointed early on with an exam.
Starting at 40, you should have a comprehensive eye exam every 1 to 4 years, depending on your age range and risk factors for various conditions.
If you have diabetes, for example, you’re also at risk for diabetic retinopathy—a complication of diabetes, and a major cause of blindness.
Your family history, too, ups your risk for eye diseases, as does your race. Latinos and African-Americans are much more likely to end up with glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy. Caucasians are a greater risk for AMD.
When it comes to cataracts, we’re all at risk: more than half of adults develop the condition by the time they hit 80. Cataracts, which cloud your vision and are the top cause of blindness worldwide, can be corrected with surgery, but they’re not preventable.
“If you’re graced with a long enough life, everybody eventually develops cataracts,” says Sidney Gicheru, M.D., a Dallas-based ophthalmologist and spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Clear your vision
Get regular exams. Some health insurers will cover an annual eye exam—especially if you’re at risk of developing problems. So if, say, glaucoma runs in your family, let your care provider know.
In general, Medicare Part B does not cover annual eye exams for glasses or contacts. It does cover tests for glaucoma and AMD, as well as diabetic retinopathy if you have diabetes. If you have no coverage, you may still qualify for a free exam through an organization like EyeCare America.
Develop good eye health habits. Just about any measure that improves your overall health will aid your vision, too.
So pile on the leafy greens and citrus fruits, and especially salmon and tuna: “We also know that diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids tend to be good for eye health,” says Gicheru.
And get moving. In 2017, UCLA scientists found that “moderate to vigorous physical activity” was linked to significantly reduced chances of glaucoma.
Now, the stuff to knock off. There’s almost no need to pile on the dire warnings about cigarettes, but the fact remains: Smoking is linked to a higher risk of cataracts, as well as AMD, which strikes twice as many smokers as nonsmokers.
And people who drink excessively are likelier to develop certain vision issues.
Wear shades year-round. Seems that those guys from The Matrix were onto something. “We think that exposure to sunlight may contribute somewhat to cataracts and macular degeneration,” says Gicheru.
Pick shades that safeguard your eyes from both UV-A (long wave) and UV-B (short wave) rays, and make sure to wear them year-round, since glare is just as hazardous in the winter as it is during the summer.
Stop staring and staring at the screen. While heavy computer use isn’t linked to permanent eye damage, in the short term, hours of screen time can result in short-term eyestrain and loss of focus.
To keep your vision crisp, experts recommend the 20/20/20 rule: every 20 minutes, focus on something besides your device for 20 seconds, 20 feet into the distance.