More Than 1 in 4 Americans Over 70 Has Impaired Vision

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Key Takeaways

  • More than a quarter of U.S. seniors is living with an untreated vision problem -- nearsightedness, farsightedness or impaired contrast sensitivity

  • Trouble reading? This can be treated with an inexpensive pair of glasses from any local store

  • Future research will track whether impaired vision increases a person’s risk of other health problems

MONDAY, Jan. 16, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- More than 1 in 4 U.S. seniors lives with untreated vision problems that, in many cases, could be solved with an inexpensive pair of glasses, a new study reports.

About 28% of people older than 71 are suffering from nearsightedness, farsightedness, or impaired contrast sensitivity, even when wearing their glasses or contact lenses, according to results published Jan. 12 in JAMA Ophthalmology.

Researchers found that about 22% of study participants were farsighted, while about 10% were nearsighted and 10% had impaired contrast sensitivity -- the ability to distinguish an object from its background.

Nearsightedness can require prescription glasses to correct distance vision, and contrast sensitivity often is associated with eye diseases such as cataracts, glaucoma or macular degeneration.

But most cases of farsightedness can be treated with relatively cheap reading glasses, which are readily available at pharmacies, discount shops and grocery stores, said senior researcher Dr. Joshua Ehrlich, a clinical lecturer of ophthalmology and visual sciences at the University of Michigan School of Medicine.

"This is a problem that for many people is really fixable with a low-cost intervention and it really can impact quality of life, well-being and independence in late life," Ehrlich said.

"I was kind of surprised how many people may have vision that could be probably improved with reading glasses, because we just don't think of that as being a problem," said Dr. Anne Coleman, a University of California, Los Angeles professor of ophthalmology who wrote an editorial accompanying the new study.

Unattended vision problems can increase a person's risk of tripping and falling, cause them to take too much of the wrong medication, or lead to a potentially fatal traffic accident, Coleman noted.

Contrast sensitivity can make it hard to drive at night or in rainy conditions, see steps clearly, or distinguish facial features, according to the AARP.

"If you can't see, you’re not going to necessarily see a curb and know to step up," Coleman said. "If you don't have the ability to see what's written on a pill container, you might end up taking the wrong pills or taking them in the wrong frequency."

For the ongoing study, more than 3,000 seniors were asked to take an in-home vision test using a computer tablet.

People were more likely to have poor vision if they were older, had less education and made less money, researchers found.

In addition, seniors reported these problems even though they were allowed to use their regular vision aids -- like glasses or contact lenses -- when they took the eye test.

"Even with people in this optimized scenario, we found a very high prevalence of vision impairment among older adults," Ehrlich said.

Part of the problem is that Medicare doesn't cover the cost of eyeglasses except after cataract surgery, the researchers said.

"If you're someone with limited resources and it’s $10 for a pair of glasses versus $10 for your medication or for your food, your medication or your food is going to be where you put your $10," Coleman said.

Ehrlich and Coleman agreed that Americans tend to take vision for granted, and don't perceive poor vision as a disease that can dramatically affect a person’s life.

"One of the things I always like to emphasize is that declining vision is not a normal part of aging. It should not be accepted as such," Ehrlich said. "There is always a reason, or almost always a reason, for one's vision declining, and sometimes the reason for that is something simple and fixable, like the need for glasses or perhaps cataract surgery."

Researchers will continue to track these people, to better define how ongoing vision problems can affect health and quality of life, Ehrlich said.

"These data are going to continue to pay dividends as we continue to follow these people and understand" the broader implications of poor vision, Ehrlich said.

Besides getting regular vision tests, there are simple lifestyle measures that people can take to preserve their eyesight as they age, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, wearing sunglasses and exercising regularly all can help a person avoid age-related eye diseases.

More information

Johns Hopkins Medicine has more on protecting aging eyes.

SOURCES: Joshua Ehrlich, MD, MPH, clinical lecturer, ophthalmology and visual sciences, University of Michigan School of Medicine; Anne Coleman, MD, PhD, professor, ophthalmology, University of California, Los Angeles; JAMA Ophthalmology, Jan. 12, 2023

What This Means For You

Older adults should get their vision checked and corrected, to improve their quality of life and protect their health.

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