The National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health reports that 4.2 million Americans age 40 and older are visually impaired, and by 2030, this number is projected to soar to 7.2 million—5 million of these individuals will have low vision. Low vision is the eyesight condition when prescription eyeglasses, contact lenses, medication and surgery cannot correct one’s vision.
To help foster support, proper treatment and vision rehabilitation for people living with diminished eyesight, the National Eye Institute and the National Eye Health Education Program dedicate February as Low Vision Awareness Month.
Symptoms of Low Vision
Individuals with low vision experience varying degrees of sight loss, from problems with glare to almost complete blindness. Types of low vision can affect the loss of central vision or peripheral (side) vision or leave a person with night blindness, the inability to see outside at night or in dimly lit areas. Partial sight can also present as blurred vision or hazy vision, which appears as a film or glare across the field of vision.
A person may show signs of low vision if they are wearing glasses or contact lenses and still find it difficult to see clearly in well-lit areas; identify the correct color of clothes or other objects; read the print on signs (traffic, building, directions, etc.); do close-up work such as reading, turning dials, sewing, fixing household items, etc. and pour liquids without spilling.
“Low vision makes everyday life a challenge,” said Gregg Balbera, president of Right at Home Nassau Suffolk. “It’s difficult to dress, read, write, cook, watch TV and just function well around the home. Getting out to shop and socialize often requires careful planning and assistance. For anyone experiencing low vision, it is important to stay current with an eye care specialist and develop a coordinated support team of family and professional caregivers.”
Causes of Low Vision
Low vision occurs more readily as the eye ages. The Cleveland Clinic notes, “One in six adults over age 45 has low vision; one in four adults over age 75 has low vision.” Because of a number of eye disorders and injuries, anyone of any age can be affected by low vision, but older adults are at highest risk for impaired vision. The American Optometric Association (AOA) lists common causes of low vision, including macular degeneration, the deterioration of the retina’s macula, which is responsible for sharp central vision; diabetic retinopathy, damage to blood vessels in the light-sensitive retina tissue because of complications from diabetes; glaucoma, increased internal pressure from blocked fluid in the eye that damages the optic nerve. If caught early, glaucoma can respond to drug treatment or surgery to minimize vision loss; and cataracts, a cloudy section of the eye lens that leads to murky or fuzzy vision and sensitivity to glare and other eye conditions such as retinal detachment, brain injury, eye cancer, albinism and inherited eye disorders like retinitis pigmentosa.
The Impacts of Low Vision
The Vision Council, a global resource for vision care products and services, states that cataracts affect 20 million Americans, 2.07 million Americans have age-related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy affects 7.6 million individuals in the U.S. and glaucoma affects 3 million Americans. The Vision Council also reports that low vision disorders cost the country “$68 billion annually in direct health care costs, lost productivity and diminished quality of life.” In addition, The Vision Council says that the indirect costs of low vision conditions average more than $47,000 annually per caregiver.
The Vision Council notes that vision loss is the primary cause of age-related disability and reports that 24,000 U.S. residents over age 65 succumbed to injuries from falls in 2012. The Vision Council relates that in a 2012 study, almost half of older adults with chronic eye disorders limited their activities, and that research has found that one third of elders with vision loss are clinically depressed, which is double the rate of the general population of seniors.
Through annual comprehensive eye exams, an eye care provider can diagnose and treat many eye conditions early in the disease progression. In many cases, timely care can delay or prevent vision loss.
When to Seek Medical Attention
Having a regular eye examination, annually for most people, is a crucial first step in eye care. Because some eye conditions are hereditary, family members may need regular monitoring by a general physician or eye care professional. If a low vision problem is detected, an eye care professional can refer the patient to a low vision specialist who is an expressly trained ophthalmologist or optometrist. The specialist will set up a vision rehabilitation plan for the patient. The goal is to maximize remaining eyesight when all measures medically and surgically are reached. Full vision cannot be restored to people with low vision, but their eyesight condition can be managed.
To assist people with limited vision, innovative assistive devices and technologies are continually improving and becoming smaller and more affordable. Many reduce light sensitivity, improve contrast or enlarge text size. A selection of vision tools and electronic aids features tinted eyewear; telescopic eyewear, both handheld and mounted; screen magnifier software; reading systems (converts text to synthetic speech); and audio products including clocks, watches, calculators, books, navigation tools and more.
Helping Older Adults With Low Vision
One of the most essential ongoing supports is making sure the loved one keeps up with regular, comprehensive eye care exams and treatment. Low vision specialists design personalized solutions for patients such as mobility training and resources for vision aids.
Other tips designed to assist a senior with eyesight impairment include adding non-glare lighting, using large print labels on medication bottles, simplifying household organization and juxtaposing light and dark colors to see contrasts on household items easier.
“It is not always obvious what a loved one with low vision needs, so regular, open communication with caregivers is essential,” Balbera explained. “As vision fades, verbal cues and directive speech become vital. Living with any form of visual impairment takes some time to accept and adapt to, so we encourage family members and our in-home caregivers to be patient in helping the loved one maintain a positive outlook and remain as self-reliant as possible.”
For more information about low vision and Low Vision Awareness Month, visit the National Eye Institute at nei.nih.gov/nehep/lvam, call 301-496-5248 or contact a local ophthalmologist or optometrist.
—Submitted by About Right at Home