PORTLAND – Baby boomers have seen a lot: Man’s first step onto the moon; the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy; Woodstock; the war in Vietnam – and that’s just to name a few. Now that boomers are in or approaching their 60s, they’re prone to see a little less, though it’s not because the world has any less to show off.
Like everything, eyes begin to show wear and tear as people mature. For the boomer generation, this means getting used to vision changes, from a new need for glasses to screening for eye diseases. You might be a young 60, but the age you feel doesn’t make much of a difference in your need for vigilant vision care.
“More people are aware of health and still feel young,” says Dr. Robert Daly, an ophthalmologist, glaucoma specialist and cataract surgeon with Eyecare Medical Group in Portland. “But when you hit 45, you’re going to need reading glasses, whether you feel 20 or not.”
According to Daly, the three most common trials for people reaching late adulthood – “The Big 3,” as he calls them – are cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration. Glaucoma, a disease that can cause permanent vision loss when left untreated, is perhaps the most serious of the three. Dubbed “a silent disorder” by eye-care professionals, glaucoma won’t present symptoms until it’s too late. There can be peripheral vision loss which, depending on severity, impacts a person’s ability to drive.
Losing car privileges doesn’t have to happen. Dr. Rachel Sugal, an optometrist at the Riverside Eye Center in Norway, is reassuring when it comes to the outlook for glaucoma patients – as long as they take early action.
“It is typically managed with eye drops, and if it’s caught early, vision loss is usually preventable,” she said.
Macular degeneration, however, “is much more significant.” According to Sugal, “it is progressive; it worsens over time.” And, this central-vision condition doesn’t have many combatants.
“There are not many good options out there to save or restore vision,” Sugal says. “Some people can do injections, and that can help reduce the progression of the degeneration, but not reverse anything.”
Dark as macular degeneration and glaucoma may be, the third challenge of Daly’s “Big 3” is a more easily treated issue – cataracts, the clouding of the eye’s lens.
“Those are pretty easily removed,” says Michael Barndollar, an official with The Iris Network in Portland, an organization that helps people who are visually impaired. “Lots of doctors all over the world specialize in cataract surgery – there has been so much progress.”
And, he says, the procedure is “simple, easy and affordable.”
That’s good news, as the development of cataracts “is a normal aging change,” according to Sugal.
“If you live long enough, you will get cataracts,” she said.
What’s the difference between people who get them early, and folks who seem to go forever without?
“The best thing to do to slow down cataracts is to wear sunglasses,” she said.
The sun is a major stressor on the eyes, and damage from years of unprotected exposure can speed up the development of cataracts.
Boomers have some other eye problems to fret about.
“Because of the older average age in Maine and the fact that diabetes tends to strike older people, we’re getting a greater onset of diabetes,” says Barndollar. “The problem’s becoming diabetic retinopathy, a series of eye diseases caused by diabetes.” However, Barndollar is cautiously optimistic.
“America as a whole is doing a far better job of staying healthy. Because of exercise, a better diet, and taking appropriate supplements, the rate of increase of certain eye disease is not dramatically increasing,” he said.
Regardless of the condition, professionals all recommend one basic form of protection when it comes to optic optimization: preventive care.
If a person has never had a full eye exam, they should, both Daly and Sugal agree. “The most important thing is to get eye exams, to go in yearly or every two years,” Sugal says, especially if you’re over 50, “just to make sure things are healthy.”
Boomers might have grown up with televisions, but constant computer use is a relatively new phenomenon. Eye strain and fatigue are common complaints for people who spend a great deal of time in front of a monitor, but there is some debate as to whether all that time can cause lasting damage. Among professionals, though, the answer is clear. According to Daly, the only issue with computer use as we age is finding glasses that facilitate focusing on the screen – the same next step for aging readers or people who work with tiny detail.
“Your eyes are meant for unlimited use,” says Daly. “You can’t hurt them by using them.”
Frances Killea is a freelance writer who most recently was a writing intern in Portland.
The three most common eye problems for people reaching late adulthood – “The Big 3” – are cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration. Regardless of the condition, professionals all recommend one basic form of protection when it comes to optic optimization: preventive care.