How Your Vision Changes Through the Ages
Here’s what’s normal, what’s not, and what you can do about it
You may only have one pair of eyes for life, but your view is ever-changing.
Babies can’t see clearly until they’re about 3 months old. Teens notice vision changes at school. Midlifers begin collecting readers. And the silver set starts sharing cataract stories over coffee.
The good news: Eye problems and vision loss aren’t a given as you grow older. In fact, compared to a generation ago, advances in eye care and regular checkups are helping more seniors in the United States see better for longer, say researchers at Northwestern University Medical School.
It’s true that life passes before your eyes. Here’s precisely what to expect, and when.
Newborns Through the Teen Years
The cute-and-cuddly stage is a busy one for eye development. Early on, babies can only focus on whatever is 8 to 10 inches away—your face! Soon enough, they’re tracking objects, forming a three-dimensional view, judging distances, and becoming pros at picking out colors and shapes.
Many refractive errors get spotted at school. If the shape of the eye isn’t bending light correctly, it can result in blurry vision up close (farsightedness) or at a distance (nearsightedness). Both can put a damper on your child’s academic performance until corrected with prescription glasses or contact lenses.
Pediatricians and schools do simple vision screenings, but it’s a smart idea to schedule a comprehensive eye exam with your America’s Best optometrist before your child starts kindergarten.
Your 20s and 30s
New independence. New careers. New families. There’s a lot going on at this stage of life, but not with your eye development. Now’s the time to lay the groundwork for good lifestyle choices to keep your eyes in great shape, says Rebecca Taylor, M.D., a spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
At the top of the list: Wearing UV-blocking sunglasses. The light energy slowly erodes healthy vision, increasing your chances of developing two common sight stealers later in life: cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.
If you wear prescription glasses or contact lenses, ask your eye doctor about antireflective lenses and special UV coatings. Aim to get your eyes checked every year.
Your 40s and 50s
Welcome to the world of presbyopia. These are the years when you’re most likely to start struggling to comfortably read a menu, because the lenses in your eyes have been gradually losing flexibility as you age.
There’s no reversing time, but if you already wear glasses or contact lenses, switching to bifocal or multifocal lenses is a fairly simple fix.
Dry eyes are another natural change to expect in your late 40s and 50s. Your tear glands just aren’t producing as much liquid, so your eyes may feel baked and irritated, and you’ll start adding eye drops to your shopping list.
Your 40th birthday is a good time to recommit to regular comprehensive eye exams. An optometrist can give you a heads-up on ways to get in front of potential problems. That’s a big deal, considering many eye conditions have no early warning signs but often start to develop in midlife. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends a dilated eye exam for all people by age 40, if they haven’t already had one.
No matter how young you feel inside, your vision is likely sliding. Dimly lit rooms and the glare from headlights may become your new nemeses, for example. And it might be harder to separate black socks from navy ones.
All of this is part of the normal aging process, and your eye doctor can help you find solutions. What’s not normal, says Dr. Taylor, are more serious age-related eye health problems that can put a crimp in your daily routine.
Chances are, you’ve had small cloudy spots, called cataracts, on your lenses for at least 10 years and they haven’t caused any problems, according to data from the National Eye Institute. After 60, though, they may begin to make it seem like you’re walking around with an Instagram filter over your eyes.
Addressing your cataracts may even help your brain function. New research from the English Longitudinal Study of Aging found that the rate of cognitive decline slowed by 50 percent following cataract surgery, compared to presurgery measurements.
At your yearly comprehensive eye exam, bring up any vision changes you’ve noticed. Also, share a list of medications you’re taking, as some can affect your eyes.
Your 70s and Beyond
Vision changes can happen fast in the years to come, but that doesn’t mean they have to slow you down. One of the biggest complaints is that it’s harder to see when you drive. Loss of peripheral vision and misjudging distances are two of the early signs that it might be time to change your driving habits.
Ask your eye doctor to double-check your eyeglass prescription and make necessary adjustments to keep you on the road longer. The AARP, AAA, and many state motor vehicle departments offer driving courses for seniors that are worth checking out.
Now’s also the time to talk to your optometrist about the warning signs of problems that may steal your vision down the road. Ask them to assess your risk. Age-related macular degeneration (often marked by distorted vision), for example, is most common among people age 60 or older. African-Americans are at the greatest risk of glaucoma, a problem that damages the optic nerve and can lead to tunnel vision.
Being proactive about your eye health is the best thing you can do, says Dr. Taylor. “Don’t ignore any changes to your vision,” she adds. “When problems are caught early, you improve your chances of overcoming them.”
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