10 age-related eye problems you should know about

With age, our eyes and vision can change, leading to various sight issues. These changes – which tend to develop between the ages of 41 and 60 – can be difficult and frustrating to cope with, or get in the way of everyday life.

Common age-related eye problems include presbyopia (long-sightedness), glaucoma, dry eyes, and cataracts. But, although we naturally become more susceptible to these conditions with age, the good news is that there are things that you can do to help prevent and correct them.

In this article, we’ll cover some common age-related eye problems and diseases, including how to spot and treat them.

Common age-related eye changes

Presbyopia (long-sightedness)

Presbyopia (long-sightedness) affects a person’s ability to see close-up objects or small print. Presbyopia occurs with age and happens when the crystalline lens in the front of the eye begins to lose elasticity, affecting your ability to focus. It’s normal to start experiencing presbyopia in your early 40s, and it can continue to worsen until around the age of 65.

Common symptoms of presbyopia include holding reading materials at arm’s length, having to squint to see clearly, and getting headaches or aching eyes when reading or doing other work close up, such as sewing.

In some cases, prescription reading glasses are enough to ease symptoms, while some people may need to explore other treatment options, including contact lenses and laser eye surgery. If you think you may have presbyopia, then it’s best to book an eye test at an opticians. You can search for an optician near you on the NHS website.

Floaters and flashes

Dots, lines (floaters), and streaks of light (flashes) in your vision are common with age and are usually harmless. For most people, they start to become visible between the ages of 50 and 70.

Floaters and flashes are caused by small pieces of debris which are suspended in the eye’s fluid, and are most noticeable when looking at plain bright backgrounds, such as a white wall. This debris is usually the result of a harmless process called posterior vitreous detachment (PVD), where the jelly-like fluid inside the eyes becomes more liquid. When this happens, strands of collagen clump together (to form debris), and cause shadows on your retina. These shadows appear as floaters.

On rare occasions, floaters and flashes can be caused by retinal detachment, which can lead to vision loss if left untreated. Floaters and flashes can however, also occur for no obvious reason, and most times, are nothing to worry about.

However, if you’ve noticed a sudden increase in flashes and floaters, then it’s best to book an eye test. An optician will check your eyes to determine whether you need to see a specialist eye doctor (ophthalmologist) for further tests or treatment. Usually, you’ll only need treatment if your symptoms could affect your vision. You can search for local opticians on the NHS website.

Dry eyes

Dry eyes can be uncomfortable, sensitive, and get in the way of day-to-day tasks. They might feel itchy, sore, gritty, blurry, and sensitive to light. But luckily, dry eyes aren’t usually serious and there are a lot of things that you can do to help.

Dry eyes become more common after the age of 50 because over time the eyes become less lubricated with fluid. Other causes of dry eyes include wearing contact lenses, looking at computer screens for long periods of time, air-conditioning, certain medicines, and smoking.

Keeping your eyes clean, taking breaks from looking at screens, getting plenty of sleep, and taking contact lenses out for breaks are all things that can help improve dry eyes. A pharmacist will be able to advise you on treatments like eye drops, and on whether you should see an optician or GP. You can find your local pharmacy on the NHS website.

Watering eyes (epiphora)

Watering eyes are common and will often improve on their own. However, if symptoms are affecting your daily activities, then treatment may be needed.

Sometimes, it’s normal for our eyes to water, for example in smoky environments, when it’s cold outside, or if an eyelash or piece of dirt gets stuck. However, watery eyes can also be caused by allergies or infections such as conjunctivitis, blocked tear ducts, drooping eyelids (ectropion or entropion), or dry eye syndrome.

Pharmacists will be able to advise you on how to treat watering eyes, including cleaning solutions and eye drops. They’ll also be able to advise you on whether you need to see a GP or optician. You can find your local pharmacy on the NHS website.

Trichiasis (ingrowing eyelashes)

Trichiasis is a condition where eyelashes are misdirected towards the eye (ingrown). This can feel as though there’s constantly something stuck in your eye and cause them to become sore, irritable, red, and watery.

Trichiasis is more common in later life, and is often caused by rubbing your eyes too much, or by chronic inflammatory conditions of the eyelid – for example, blepharitis. If left untreated, chronic irritation from trichiasis can cause ulcerations or erosions in the cornea, and pose a risk to eyesight.

The condition should not be confused with entropion (where the lower eyelid droops and turns inwards) because the position of the eyelid doesn’t change.

If you suspect you may have mild symptoms of trichiasis, your pharmacist will be able to advise you on home treatments such as eye drops, ointments, and a warm compress. You can search for your local pharmacy on the NHS website. However, if your symptoms are more severe, it’s best to book an appointment with your GP as they’ll be able to advise you on whether the ingrown eyelashes need to be removed.

Common age-related eye diseases

Cataracts

Cataracts occur when the lenses in your eyes develop cloudy patches. These patches can become bigger overtime, causing blurred vision and eventually sight loss. Cataracts usually develop in both eyes, but may not necessarily appear at the same time or be the same in each eye. Cataracts usually appear in people in their 40s and 50s, but don’t affect vision until they’re in their 60s. They can affect day-to-day activities such as driving and reading.

Other symptoms of cataracts include finding lights too bright, struggling to see in lower light, and colours appearing faded. Cataracts don’t usually cause irritation at first, but can become painful as the condition advances. While experts aren’t certain what causes cataracts, factors such as smoking, diabetes, eye injury, long-term use of steroids, and family history of cataracts, can increase risk.

If you’re worried about cataracts, it’s important to book an eye test. Your optician will conduct a series of tests, including a visual acuity exam, which measures how well you can see at different distances. If they suspect you may have cataracts, you’ll be referred to an eye specialist for further tests and treatment. You can search for your local opticians on the NHS website.

Glaucoma

Glaucoma is a common eye condition where the optic nerve connecting the eye to the brain becomes damaged. It’s usually caused by a fluid buildup in the front part of the eye, which increases pressure. It can affect people of any age, but is most common in people in their 70s and 80s.

Glaucoma doesn’t always present symptoms to start with but instead develops over many years. It will usually affect the sides of your vision (peripheral) first. If you do notice symptoms, these may include blurred vision and seeing rainbow-coloured circles in bright lights. Typically, both eyes will be affected, though it may be worse in one eye.

If left untreated, glaucoma can lead to loss of vision, so it’s important to book an eye test or GP if you have any concerns. You can search for your local opticians on the NHS website. If you have a family history of glaucoma, it’s important to have yearly NHS screenings, to catch any changes as soon as possible.

On rare occasions, glaucoma can develop suddenly and cause symptoms including intense eye pain, nausea and vomiting, headaches, and red eyes. If this happens, it’s important to go to your nearest eye casualty unit or A&E immediately.

Common retinal conditions

The retina is a thin sheet of nerve tissue that lines the inside of the eye. It’s key for sending signals to the brain that allow us to see. Below are some common retinal conditions and how to treat them.

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD)

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a common condition that affects the middle part of your vision (not the peripheral). It can appear in one eye or both, and first symptoms often include blurriness or distortion in the central area of your vision.

AMD usually begins to affect people in their 50s and 60s. While it doesn’t cause complete blindness, it can make everyday activities like reading and driving tricky.

The exact cause of AMD is currently unknown, though it’s been linked to smoking, high blood pressure, being overweight, and having a family history of AMD. Without getting treatment for AMD, vision can get worse, so it’s best to try and catch it early. Treatments for AMD include eye injections, and light therapy.

You can find more information about AMD, including its symptoms, getting diagnosed, treatments, and living with the condition on the NHS website. And you can search for your local opticians to book an eye test here.

Retinal detachment

Retinal detachment usually occurs when the retina has been weakened by a hole or tear. This allows fluid to collect under the retina, which weakens its attachment. However, it can also be caused by short-sightedness, eye operations (such as cataracts), and having a family history of retinal detachment.

Symptoms of a detached retina include blurred or dimmed vision, a sudden increase in dots or lines (floaters and flashes), and having a dark shadow moving across your vision. If you’re suffering from these symptoms, it’s best to call NHS 111 because, if left untreated, detached retinas can permanently affect your vision. They’ll be able to advise you on whether you need to see someone, or what to do next.

Early treatments for retinal detachment include laser or freezing treatment. Sometimes an operation under local anaesthetic may be needed to repair the hole and reattach the retina.

Diabetic retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy is an eye disease people living with diabetes are at higher risk of developing. If blood sugar levels and blood pressure are consistently high, they can damage your blood vessels. And with many important blood vessels in your eyes, this can affect the retina’s ability to work properly, causing vision issues. If left untreated for too long, diabetic retinopathy can cause complete sight loss.

Luckily, there are things you can do to protect yourself against developing diabetic retinopathy. This includes maintaining blood pressure and sugar levels, making healthy lifestyle choices, spotting changes in your eyesight, and getting your eyes tested. Everyone over 12 years old living with diabetes in the UK is entitled to an NHS eye screening test once a year. You can find out more about diabetic eye screening and how to book your test now on the NHS website.

The Diabetes UK website also has further information about diabetic retinopathy’s different stages, causes, and treatments.

What help and support is available for those suffering from sight issues?

Vision aids

If you have trouble seeing despite wearing glasses, you may benefit from low-vision aids. These are tailored devices that are stronger than regular glasses. Some people who have only partial sight are able to improve their vision significantly by using low-vision aids.

Examples of low-vision aids include magnifiers, large print products, anti-glare spectacles, and reading stands. You can find more information about these products, how they can help, and where to find them in this leaflet from the Macular Society.

Support groups and resources

If you or someone you know is blind or has a visual impairment, you might be interested in contacting a support group for people with vision loss. Below are a few examples.

  • Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) – UK’s leading charity for people with vision loss. It has useful information about how to cope, an online community, online shop, and helpline.
  • The Macular Society – support for people with (age-related) macular disease.
  • Glaucoma UK – help, advice, and support for people living with glaucoma.
  • Retina UK – supports for people affected by inherited progressive sight loss.
  • Blind Veterans – offers lifelong support to Armed Forces and National Service veterans struggling with sight loss.
  • SeeAbility – specialises in supporting people who have disabilities or are autistic, who may also have sight loss.
  • Diabetes UK – useful information and advice regarding the connection between diabetes and sight loss.

If you’d like to connect with other people living with a visual impairment, there are various local voluntary organisations that help support people with sight problems. This can be a huge helping factor in managing the emotional impact of vision loss. You can search for local support organisations by postcode on the Visionary website.

The NHS website also has useful information on how to cope with vision loss.

Final thoughts…

Age-related vision changes can be frustrating and get in the way of day-to-day tasks. And while eye problems are often a natural part of the ageing process, there are things you can do to help prevent or correct them.

According to the NHS, adults should have a routine eye test at least every two years. Other factors like eating a balanced diet and making healthy lifestyle choices (such as not smoking) are your best natural defences against age-related vision loss.

If you’re already struggling, then it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. Everybody is different and there’s no right way to cope with vision loss, so it’s okay to take your time.

What are your experiences of age-related vision problems? Join the conversation on the health section of the Rest Less community forum, or leave a comment below.

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