Low Vision Affects Physical and Cognitive Abilities in Older Adults

Our bodies are only so resilient before they start to wear down. Though life expectancy is higher than ever thanks to healthier living conditions, our bodies are not exempt from being worn down.

The eyes unfortunately are often the first thing to go. We use our eyes every single day, without fail. The reason we don’t know our eyes are failing until it’s too late is because they don’t tell us that they’re hurting!

That’s why so many older adults experience low and poor vision as they get older. They didn’t know their eyes needed help and, as a result, they’ve lost most of their vision to various conditions or diseases.

A new study published by the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society shows that poor vision in older adults sets off a number of physical and cognitive problems in addition to lost sight.

What is Low Vision?

Low vision, not to be confused with blindness, is a term that refers to exactly what you’d think: a lower level of vision. Low vision means that a person still has vision but it is limited.

Some experts would consider low vision to be blind, but a person with low vision can still make out shapes and brightness, whereas someone who is blind would only see darkness and maybe some shapes.

A number of eye conditions and diseases can cause low vision in the elderly. But, there are three main culprits: macular degeneration, cataracts and glaucoma. All three are age-related diseases that can cause vision loss if not treated or prevented.

Macular degeneration is a disease that is unfortunately unavoidable. The macula of the eye degenerates over time, but there are ways to slow progression of the disease. If this disease is allowed to progress, it can result in severe vision loss.

Cataracts target the lens of the eye. It is largely believed to be caused by a protein buildup on the lens. When too much protein stays on the lens of the eye, it can cause clouded central vision. Cataracts can be seen covering the pupil and will look cloudy and gray.

Glaucoma is possibly the most notorious of all three diseases. This disease sneaks up on you without warning. But once it affects the eye, there’s no turning back. Glaucoma raises the intraocular pressure and causes damage to the optic nerve. This will largely affect your night vision.

Lower Physical and Cognitive Abilities

The study published by AGS and reported on by ScienceDaily concludes that older adults with low vision are less likely to partake in the activities they used to. As a result, withdrawing from their favorite activities has shown to affect their physical and cognitive abilities.

Physical Problems

At the beginning of the study in 2003, participants were asked to list the physical activities they liked to participate in. The list included physical activities like cycling, swimming, gardening, long walks and gymnastics.

At the start of the study, most participants were labeled as having no to mild vision impairment. But as the study progressed, the visual health of the participants declined. During the second wave of the study (about six years after the start), participants were recorded as having severe visual impairments and low vision.

Low Vision Affects Physical and Cognitive Abilities in Older AdultsAs a result, participants claimed that they had stopped doing the physical activities they used to. Physical activity, even something as mild as gardening, is crucial in keeping the body strong. Exercise is linked to increased happiness because of the hormones released when engaging in physical activity.

Cognitive Decline

The same participants were asked to also list cognitive-related activities they enjoyed at the start of the study. These included reading, crossword puzzles, board games and participating in social activities.

Following suit as with the results of the physical activities, by the second wave of the study, participants had almost all together stopped these activities. Reading and crossword puzzles were the most abandoned activity as their vision declined.

Unfortunately, so was social interaction. It is thought that low vision could cause depression in some older adults. When they lose their vision and the ability to do the activities they love, older adults spend more time alone which could trigger mild or even severe depression.

Preventing Low Vision

There is a silver lining in this study, which found that low vision in most of these participants could have been prevented. This gives hope to all of us who will one day be elderly or may be already there. We can protect our eyes from low vision.

The first thing to do in order to prevent vision loss as you get older is to see your eye doctor regularly. Anyone above the age of 18 should see the eye doctor once every two years, until the age of 60, when you should go at least once a year.

Frequent eye exams will help to spot diseases like glaucoma, cataracts and macular degeneration early enough to slow down the diseases. This will help to preserve your vision longer so that you can continue to enjoy the activities you love.

Living With Low Vision

Sometimes, low vision is not preventable. But that doesn’t mean that you need to stop living because your vision isn’t what it used to be.

If you have low vision, there is no cure for it but there are ways of living with the condition. It’s a matter of adapting. If there’s one thing humans are good at, it’s evolving and adapting to their environments.

There are many ways to adapt to low vision. The first thing to do it to invest in some good low vision aids. Low vision aids can include a white cane, magnifying glasses, a Seeing Eye dog or something like the OrCam.

The second thing you can do is to adapt your home to be low vision friendly. Install brighter lights in your home and use black tape to contrast the light. This will help you find things easily. For example, place black tape along light switches, stairs, and various other objects so you can find them and see them.

Low vision is preventable if caught early enough. Talk to your doctor about maintaining your vision and what you can do to comfortably live with low vision without giving up your favorite activities.

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