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Impaired Eyesight and Cataracts in the Elderly

Age related visual impairment is a major health issue among the elderly. As we get older, the normal function of the eye tissue decreases and there is an increased likelihood of visual disturbances. The most common causes of these include cataracts, macular degeneration, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and loss of near focusing ability. Left untreated, impaired eyesight can lead to social isolation, a lack of independence, increased risk of falls, depression and general physical decline. Regular 6 to 12 monthly eye testing should be incorporated into all routine health checks for the elderly in order to prevent and/or delay permanent loss of vision.

What is a cataract?

A cataract is where the lens in the eye becomes clouded, thus impacting an individual’s vision. The lens is the part of the eye that focuses the light/image on the retina, the light sensitive tissue at the back of the eye. If it becomes clouded, the images received by the retina become blurry and healthy vision is impaired. Cataracts do not spread from one eye to the other but can be present in either or both of the eyes.


How do cataracts form?

The lens of the eye is comprised predominantly of water and protein. The arrangement of the protein is such that the lens is kept clear so that light can pass through. With age, the proteins can form masses in the lens which cause clouding. These cloudy areas are cataracts and left untreated they can grow larger over time, causing increasing difficulty with seeing clearly. Over time the colour of the lens may also change from clear to a yellowish/brown which can make it difficult to read, perform everyday tasks and in the advanced stages, to correctly identify colours.


Risk factors for cataracts?

Research suggests that other than advancing age there are several additional risk factors for cataracts including chronic conditions such as diabetes, smoking, alcohol use, poor diet and prolonged sun exposure.


How are cataracts treated?

The most common method of treatment for cataracts is surgery and it is one of the most often performed surgical procedures in Australia. The cloudy lens is removed from the eye and replaced with a permanent plastic lens. In most cases it is relatively straightforward surgery and is generally an outpatient procedure.


The recovery time after cataract surgery is around 6 – 8 weeks. Blurred vision is common in the early stages as the eye takes time to adjust to the artificial lens. During this time your elderly patient may need some help to perform routine tasks and to administer their prescribed eyedrops.


If you are concerned about the eye health or vision of an elderly loved one, please seek the advice of a medical practitioner.


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