Studies indicate need for better eye care for older adults

Photo: NIH Image Gallery via Flickr

Photo: NIH Image Gallery via Flickr

What’s worse? Losing your vision, memory, speech, hearing or a limb? For many adults, loss of eyesight is the most feared. Eye impairments and lack of appropriate care are a growing problem for many older adults, as it can lead to loss of independence and an increased burden on the health system.

In a recent nationwide poll, researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, found that the nearly half of respondents (47.4 percent) across all ethnic and racial groups described loss of eyesight as the worst ailment that could happen to them. While most (87.5 percent) believe good vision is vital to overall health, many were unaware of important eye diseases and their behavioral or familial risk factors. This points to a need for more education about vision and eye health, researchers said.

Similarly, the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) found that a majority of respondents it surveyed in February don’t receive regular eye exams.

Although nearly two out of three respondents in the AAO survey reported some kind of eye problem or impairment, one in eight (nearly 13 percent) said they had never sought an examination by an ophthalmologist.

The total economic burden of vision loss and blindness in the United States in 2013 was estimated to be $139 billion, and treatment of eye-related disorders totaled more than $68.8 billion in annual direct medical costs, according to Prevent Blindness, a volunteer safety and advocacy organization.

The AAO survey found that 64 percent of adults had one or more of the issues with their eyes or vision:

  • Difficulty seeing at night;
  • Blurry vision;
  • Reading up close;
  • Flashes of light;
  • Red, watery eyes;
  • Double vision.

Some of the more common age-related eye diseases include age-related macular degeneration,  cataracts, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma. Cataracts are a leading cause of visual impairment among adults 65 years and older. The condition will affect more than half of all Americans by the time they are 80 years old, according to the AAO. Early detection and treatment of these conditions can help to save sight or slow deterioration before vision loss occurs.

“Just like graying hair, weakening hips and slowing metabolism, our eyes are impacted by age, usually starting around age 40,” Rebecca J. Taylor, M.D., a clinical spokesperson for the AAO, said in a statement.

While many aging adults focus on diet and exercise to stave off conditions like heart disease, diabetes and other age-related ailments, Taylor said it’s equally important to take steps to prevent potentially blinding eye diseases as part of an overall health plan.

A major challenge for those over 65 is that Medicare does not cover routine eye exams for glasses or contact lenses. Part B covers one annual checkup for diabetic retinopathy, a yearly glaucoma screening for high-risk individuals and some treatment for macular degeneration.

However, many eye diseases have no early symptoms and may develop painlessly; therefore, adults may not notice changes in vision until the condition is quite advanced. That means when problems are found it may require very expensive treatments, such as surgery, high-cost drops or injectable drugs. The American Academy of Ophthalmology’s EyeCare America program offers eligible seniors a comprehensive eye exam. Some may also qualify for up to one year of treatment at no out-of-pocket cost.

Regular Checkups

The AAO recommends that a healthy adult get a baseline eye exam at age 40, even if they have no history of problems or disease. Those who have chronic conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, may require more frequent exams. This Washington Post article has some tips on how adults can protect their vision as they age.

Authors of the Hopkins study point out that while life expectancy of Americans continues to increase, federal funding for eye research is less than 0.5 percent of the $139 billion annual cost of vision disorders.

The National Eye Institute has a list of organizations that offer financial assistance and free exams for older adults in need. Lions Clubs provide financial assistance for eye care to individuals through local clubs. Services vary from club to club.

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