Our eyes and vision can change with age, causing various sight issues. These changes – which tend to happen between the ages of 41 and 60 – can be difficult and frustrating to cope with and may get in the way of everyday life.
Common age-related eye problems include presbyopia (long-sightedness), glaucoma, dry eyes, and cataracts. However, the good news is that while we naturally become more susceptible to these conditions as we get older, there are things that we can do to help prevent and correct them.
Here, we’ll cover some common age-related eye problems and diseases and explore how to spot and treat them.
Common age-related eye changes
Presbyopia (long-sightedness) affects a person’s ability to see close-up objects or small print.
Presbyopia naturally 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 progressing until around the age of 65.
Common presbyopia symptoms include needing to hold reading materials at arm’s length, squinting to see clearly, and getting headaches or aching eyes when reading or doing other close-up tasks, such as sewing.
Sometimes, prescription reading glasses are enough to ease symptoms, but some people may need to explore other treatment options – including contact lenses and laser eye surgery.
If you think you might have presbyopia, it’s best to book an eye test with an optician.
Floaters and flashes
Dots, lines (floaters), and streaks of light (flashes) in your vision are common with age and 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 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 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. But they can also occur for no obvious reason, and most of the time, are nothing to worry about.
However, if you’ve noticed a sudden increase in flashes and floaters, it’s best to book an eye test. An optician will check your eyes and advise 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.
Dry eyes can be uncomfortable 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 a serious issue, and you can do plenty of things to help ease the symptoms.
The condition becomes 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, spending time in air-conditioned rooms, taking certain medicines, and smoking.
Keeping your eyes clean, taking breaks from looking at screens, getting plenty of sleep, and removing contact lenses periodically are all things that can help improve dry eyes.
A pharmacist can advise you on treatments like eye drops and 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, you may benefit from treatment.
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 can advise on how to treat watering eyes, including cleaning solutions and eye drops. They can also advise on whether you need to see a GP or optician.
Trichiasis (ingrowing eyelashes)
Trichiasis is a condition where eyelashes are misdirected towards the eye (ingrown). It can feel as though there’s constantly something stuck in your eye and cause it to become sore, irritable, red, and watery.
Trichiasis is more common in later life. It’s often caused by rubbing your eyes too much or 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 eyelid’s position doesn’t change.
If you suspect you may have mild trichiasis symptoms, your pharmacist may recommend home treatments like eye drops, ointments, and a warm compress.
However, if your symptoms are more severe, it’s best to book an appointment with your GP, as they can advise you on whether the ingrown eyelashes need to be removed.
Common age-related eye diseases
Cataracts occur when the lenses in your eyes develop cloudy patches. These patches can become larger over time, 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. The condition usually occurs in people in their 40s and 50s, but doesn’t affect vision until they’re in their 60s. Cataracts 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. They don’t usually irritate at first but can become painful as the condition advances.
If you’re worried about cataracts, it’s important to book an eye examination. 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, they’ll refer you to an eye specialist for further tests and treatment.
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 it’s most common in people in their 70s and 80s.
Glaucoma doesn’t always present symptoms to start with but develops over many years. It usually affects 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. People aged 40+ with a close relative with glaucoma are entitled to a free NHS eye examination every year to catch any changes as soon as possible.
On rare occasions, glaucoma can develop suddenly and cause symptoms like intense eye pain, nausea and vomiting, headaches, and red eyes. If this happens, it’s essential 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 the 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 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.
Retinal detachment usually occurs when a hole or tear weakens the retina. 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 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 what to do next.
Early remedies for retinal detachment include laser or freezing treatment. An operation under local anaesthetic may sometimes be needed to repair the hole and reattach the retina.
Diabetic retinopathy is an eye disease that people living with diabetes are at higher risk of developing.
This is because, 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 learn 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?
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 with only partial sight can 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) – the UK’s leading charity for people with vision loss. It has useful information about how to cope, an online community and online shop, and a 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 – support for people affected by inherited progressive sight loss.
- The Partially Sighted Society – provides specialist services focused on helping people make the most of their remaining vision.
- Blind Veterans – offers lifelong support to Armed Forces and National Service veterans struggling with sight loss.
- SeeAbility – specialises in supporting people with disabilities or autism, who may also have sight loss.
- Diabetes UK – helpful 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 support people with sight problems. Having some help can be a huge 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 plenty of valuable information on how to cope with vision loss.
Age-related vision changes can be frustrating and get in the way of everyday 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. You can find your nearest optician on the NHS website – or you can book directly with Boots Opticians using the button below.
Other factors like eating a balanced diet and making healthy lifestyle choices (such as not smoking) are also your best natural defences against age-related vision loss.
If you’re already struggling, 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? We’d be interested to hear from you in the comments below.