Know your eyes, whatever your age
AGEING Your eyes change as you age and, at different stages in your life, they are at risk from new sorts of illness. Your visual health depends on knowing what to look out for and how to get it treated. Yvonne Gordon investigates the five ages of your eyes
Although most babies are born long-sighted (hypermetropia), which can be associated with focusing problems (astigmatism), this usually improves naturally. If closer vision is blurred, this normally corrects itself by the age of five. Infrequently, some new-born babies have congenital cataracts which need operating on within one year to ensure sight develops. According to the Association of Optometrists, one in five children has an undiagnosed vision problem of which youngsters are often unaware.
Parents should research any family history of eye problems and ensure children have regular eye examinations. Cheshire-based ophthalmologist Brendan Moriarty says 32-week premature babies weighing less than 1.5 kilograms might have Retinopathy of Prematurity (RoP). He says: “These babies can survive because of medical care. The problem is that blood-vessels at the back of the eye are not well-formed and can grow abnormally.” They are treated by lasering the back of the eye.
When one or both eyes turn inwards or outwards, squints (strabismus) can occur, with the eye becoming amblyopic, called lazy eye. Squints can be triggered by childhood illnesses. Optometrist Norbert Cohn emphasises squints only manifest after illness if there is already a degree of eye-muscle weakness. The solution is to cover the better eye with a patch and prescribe glasses if necessary, along with eye exercises (orthoptics) to stimulate vision. An operation is sometimes necessary.
If poor vision is not dealt with by an eye-care professional before the age of nine, normal sight cannot be regained.
Short-sightedness, which is medically known as myopia, is the main problem for children up to the age of 16. This condition tends to run in families and is normally corrected with the simple use of glasses or contact lenses.
Some children may also manifest learning difficulties when beginning to learn how to read and write. Eye exercises, coloured overlays and lenses can help overcome difficulties such as mixing up words and problems spelling.
Diabetes in children is increasing and can affect vision so eye examinations form part of diabetic management.
Interestingly, new research also indicates that children who play outdoors are less short-sighted, because they focus more on looking into the distance.
Myopia develops further at this stage. If young people participate in contact sports, there is the added risk of retinal detachment, if myopia is very extreme. People with myopia might need glasses or contact lenses for certain occupations, such as a driver, surgeon or engineer.
Mr Cohn stresses that always washing hands before touching eyes is essential. Infections like conjunctivitis, when eyes become red and swollen, can occur at any time and are curable with eye drops from a pharmacist.
The risk of glaucoma – which causes damage to the eye’s nerve-fibre bundles – increases over the age of 40. This can lead to irreversible blindness if untreated. Sight restriction starts with the peripheral vision and increases gradually over many years. The condition is usually symptom-free, but sufferers sometimes get headaches, sickness and sore eyes, which should be checked out with a doctor.
From 45 onwards, the lens fibres inside the eyes harden, which means near objects are harder to focus upon – a condition called presbyopia – even if distant vision seems fine. Many people now need a pair of reading glasses, prescribed by an optometrist, as each eye may require different lenses.
This age group can also develop floaters, small particles in the visual field, which can be lasered away. Niall Patton, consultant ophthalmologist at the Alexandra Hospital, Cheadle, says: “Diabetes is the most common cause of blind registration and early detection through screening programmes is crucial.”
People need to be educated about the importance of screening in preventing the development of severe visual problems.
Age-related-macular-degeneration (AMD) is the most common cause of blindness in the UK, in which the central field of vision deteriorates. Some optometrists use the Zeiss Cirrus OCT scanner to detect early signs.
Mr Patton says ongoing injections can be effective in removing accumulated fluid from under the retina in wet AMD. Earliest symptoms are distortion of vision, such as straight lines appearing wavy.
Cataracts occur when the eye’s lenses become cloudy; an operation is necessary to install artificial lenses. Another potential problem is double vision, which can be caused by conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes. It results from pressure on the nerves supplying the eye muscles and is corrected by appropriate lenses. High blood-pressure can also cause eye haemorrhages, which can result in blindness.
Risks can be lessened by gentle exercise and relaxation, plus eating fruit and vegetables to absorb cell-protecting antioxidants.
Dry eyes can indicate rheumatoid arthritis, which requires medical intervention or can be caused by the menopause. This is treatable with eye drops. Rheumatoid arthritis is also linked to serious eye infection (known as iritis) which can lead to uveitis, a potentially serious condition that can be a cause of blindness. These conditions usually require hospital treatment after evaluation by an optometrist.