Have you noticed that you're reaching for your reader glasses more often, and it just seems like you just can't see as well as you used to?
Unfortunately, it's part of the aging process. But we can take steps, including healthy food choices, that can help protect vision and reduce the risk of serious eye disease in the future. Currently, vision impairment and blindness are among the top five causes of disability in older adults, according to the National Institute for Health.
The clear, curved lens at the front of our eye may be one of the first parts of our body to show signs of age. The lens bends to focus light and form images on the retina at the back of our eye. The flexibility allows us to see at different distances -- up close or far away -- but the lens hardens with age. The change starts slowly. Eventually, the age-related stiffening and clouding affects nearly everyone.
"You might find you're holding your book farther away to read it. You might even start thinking your arms just aren't long enough," says Emily Chew, clinical researcher with the NIH National Eye Institute. "A good and simple treatment is reading glasses."
Cataracts -- cloudy areas in the lens -- are another common eye problem that comes with age. By age 75, more than half of Americans will have had them. Some are small and have little effect on eyesight, but others become large and interfere with vision. Symptoms include blurriness, difficulty seeing well at night, lights that seem too bright and faded color vision. There are no specific steps to prevent them, according to the NIH, but tobacco use and exposure to sunlight raise the risk of developing them. The good news is that surgery can restore good vision.
Our natural aging process can also weaken the muscles that control the size of our pupil. It becomes smaller and less responsive to light. People in their 60s need three times more light for comfortable reading than those in their 20s, and smaller pupils make it more difficult to see at night.
The NIH says that more serious age-related eye diseases, such as glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration and diabetic eye disease, may have no warning signs or symptoms in the early states, so a regular eye exam is recommended.
"Glaucoma can slowly steal your peripheral vision. You may not notice it until it's advance," says Chew, adding it can be treated with prescription eye drops, lasers or surgery. However, if not treated, it can lead to vision loss and blindness.
AMD, the leading cause of blindness in Americans over age 65, causes gradual loss of vision in the center of the eye.
Here's the good news -- in a large, NIH-funded clinical study by Chew, researchers found that a specific combination of vitamins and minerals can prevent AMD from progressing to a more severe form. Scientists also found that people who eat diets rich in green, leafy vegetables, such as kale and spinach, and fish, are less likely to have advanced AMD. Vitamin and mineral supplements, especially those containing lutein and zeaxanthin (found in green leafy vegetables), were found to slow progression of AMD as well.
Here are some steps you can take toward better eye health:
--Have a comprehensive eye exam each year after age 50.
--Eat a diet rich in green, leafy vegetables and fish as well as berries, beets, broccoli and carrots.
--Maintain normal blood pressure.
--Control diabetes if you have it.
--Wear sunglasses and a brimmed hat any time you're outside in bright sunshine.
--Wear protective eyewear when playing sports or doing work around the house that may cause eye injury.
Q and A
Q: How can I avoid tears when cutting onions?
A: Blame the sulfur compounds in onions for this common eye irritation. When released by chopping or slicing, these compounds react with enzymes and turn into chemicals that aggravate your eyes, which your lacrimal glands produce tears to wash away. You can try chilling or even lightly freezing onions before chopping, which reduces the release of irritants. You can even try special "onion goggles," which you can find in specialty cooking shops and home stores. Another option is to switch your onions. Spring onions and sweet onion varieties such as Vidalia and Maui are lower in pungent sulfur compounds. However, these onions may have a slightly different taste. -- University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter.
Charlyn Fargo is a registered dietitian with Hy-Vee in Springfield, Ill., and a spokesperson for the Illinois Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For comments or questions, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @NutritionRD. To find out more about Charlyn Fargo and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.