As the population ages, eye problems will become an increasingly large healthcare issue for society. Fortunately, modern science and new surgical techniques are bringing improved vision — and better quality of life — to those suffering from a number of common ailments.
Several months ago during a routine eye exam, Louise Pugliano was told that she had cataracts in both eyes. The 84-year-old doesn’t drive at night and had no symptoms, but had worn glasses or contact lenses for more than 20 years, and agreed to have cataract-removal surgery.
The first procedure took place Jan. 8, and the second was done Jan. 23, and they were not only painless, but the Springfield woman was thrilled to find she no longer needs prescription eyewear.
“I’m so glad I did this; I had a great experience and wonderful results: I don’t need glasses anymore and can read the small print in the newspaper,” Pugliano said, adding that she had complete faith in her surgeon, Dr. John Papale of Papale Eye Center in Springfield.
Her diagnosed condition, treatment, and response to it are all typical of what’s happening within the broad realm of eye care today — as the population ages, more people are being diagnosed with problems, but modern science has created solutions, many of which are truly life-altering.
Papale told BusinessWest that cataract removal is the most commonly performed surgery in the U.S., and more than 3 million people have the procedure done every year. The 20-minute outpatient operation corrects vision and eliminates troublesome symptoms that affect many seniors, such as seeing halos or being bothered by the glare of oncoming headlights when driving at night.
“Most people have more than a 95% restoration of vision, assuming there are no other problems such as glaucoma and macular degeneration,” Papale said, as he spoke about conditions that affect aging eyes.
Indeed, they are common. The Mayo Clinic reports that about half of all 65-year-old Americans have some degree of cataract formation, and more than 30 million Americans are expected to develop them by 2020. In addition, more than 6.5 million Americans age 65 and older have a severe visual impairment, and rates of severe vision loss are expected to double by 2030.
Dr. Camille Guzek-Latka, an optometrist at Chicopee Eyecare, P.C., says many people use over-the-counter glasses to avoid getting an eye exam. “But the exam is important; we not only evaluate the need for glasses, we look for evidence of eye disease because, as people age, their risk of developing a problem increases.”
Annual eye exams are critical for people over the age of 60 because eye disease can cause irreversible blindness and there may be no symptoms until it reaches an advanced stage.
Although some people don’t have vision coverage on their insurance plan, Eye Care America has provided free exams to almost 2 million eligible seniors (visit www.aao.org), and health-insurance plans cover the cost if a minor medical problem is uncovered, which usually happens as people get older.
“It’s important to protect against damaging eye diseases; people are living longer today and want to maintain full visual functionality through the end of their lives,” said surgeon Dr. Andrew Jusko of Eyesight and Surgery Associates in Springfield and East Longmeadow.
Papale agrees. “The eye is our most important sense: 25% of all input to the brain comes from the eye and nerve endings,” he noted.
For this issue and its focus on the business of aging, BusinessWest examines problems that affect aging eyes and what can be done to prevent and correct them.
Cause, Effect, and Treatment
The lens of the eye consists of a flexible jelly that begins to stiffen as people enter their 30s and 40s. The condition is called presbyopia, and most people need reading glasses to compensate for the fact that their eyes can no longer shift focus easily.
“Many people in their 40s and 50s get by with over-the-counter reading glasses, but by the time they reach their 50s or 60s they usually don’t work well,” Jusko said, adding that early stages of other diseases such as diabetes or hypertension can be seen in the eyes during an exam.
Cataracts cause the lens to change from crystal clear to cloudy, and typically develop as people age. They don’t harm the eye but do affect vision, and surgery to correct the problem involves replacing the aging lens with an artificial one.
In the past, eye drops were always needed for a few weeks following the procedure, but Guzek-Latka said a newer approach is often used today called ‘dropless cataract surgery,’ which occurs when the surgeon injects a combination of antibiotics and steroids into the eye at the time of the procedure to reduce the need for drops after it.
“The surgery is safe and wonderful; it can restore sight, reduce the risk of falling, and people are thrilled with the results,” she noted, adding that, although cataracts are related to aging, prolonged use of steroids for conditions such as asthma can cause them to develop earlier.
Cataracts are a change that occurs as the eye ages, but glaucoma is an age-related disease that causes blindness as the peripheral or side vision is lost.
“It’s called the silent thief of sight because the vision loss occurs slowly and painlessly,” Guzek-Latka said, adding that the condition is linked to a buildup of pressure inside the eye, but it can take many years for the vision loss to occur.
The disease can start in the 40s, but risk increases with age. “People cannot tell if the pressure inside their eye is normal, so they can be going blind and not know it,” Papale told BusinessWest, noting that, since glaucoma frequently only affects one eye, the other eye compensates for it so the person doesn’t realize what is happening.
As a result, it’s critical to catch the disease before irreversible damage is done. “An eye exam will show whether the pressure is normal and if the optic nerves appear abnormal,” Jusko said.
Some forms of glaucoma can be cured, and treatment ranges from surgical procedures to prescription eye drops that control pressure inside the eye.
Jusko often uses eye stents during surgery, which are small devices implanted in the drainage area of the eye to help reduce the need for future medication.
“The average age for glaucoma is the 70s, which is about the same age that people need cataract surgery,” he said, noting that stents can also be used during that procedure.
Age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, is one of the most serious eye diseases and the leading cause of blindness in seniors. “The macula is the part of the retina that gives you the sharp vision you need to read, drive, and recognize faces,” Papale said.
More than 2 million Americans are afflicted with some form of the disease, and that number is expected to more than double to 5.4 million by 2050 due to the aging population.
“It’s the leading cause of irreversible vision loss in people age 50 and older, and treatment for it is limited,” Guzek-Latka said.
“There are usually no symptoms in the early stages, but the disease can be seen when the pupil is dilated during an eye exam,” she continued, adding that, as the disease progresses, it causes distortion in the central vision. “People can still see things on the side, but they can’t read, and faces often appear as dark gray areas. Most people think blindness means total blackness, but it’s very rare not to be able to see any light.”
The cause of AMD is unknown, but it’s important for people to be aware of risk factors. Smoking doubles the risk of macular degeneration, it tends to run in families, women are more likely to develop it than men, and it is more common among Caucasians than African-Americans, Hispanics, and other races.
“People might be able to reduce their risk of macular degeneration or slow the progression by making healthy choices such as regular exercise, maintaining normal blood pressure, quitting smoking, and eating a healthy diet rich in green, leafy vegetables and fish,” Guzek-Latka said.
The disease is divided into two categories — wet macular degeneration and dry macular degeneration. Although there are no symptoms associated with early dry macular degeneration, the vision becomes distorted over time, and once function is lost, it cannot be restored.
However, further damage may be prevented with special vitamins formulated for the eye. “But we don’t recommend taking them unless the person has been diagnosed with macular degeneration,” Jusko said, noting that studies show no definitive or preventive benefits for people without the disease.
Wet macular degeneration is caused by the growth of abnormal blood vessels under the macula that are fragile and prone to bleeding.
“The bleeding is not visible because the macula is in the back of the eye,” Papale said, adding that the dry form of the disease can progress to the wet type.
Treatment includes injections of medicine that block the growth of abnormal blood vessels and can lead to some improvement.
“It won’t cure the disease, but it’s definitely an advance; 10 years ago, there was less hope for people with wet macular degeneration then there is today,” Guzek-Latka said.
She added that FDA approval was granted for an implantable device in 2010 that is used at the end stages of the disease. It’s the size of a pea and magnifies images onto the retina.
“But it’s only used as a last resort. It will not restore vision, but might allow someone to identify faces, even if they are not clear,” she said.
Diabetes is another disease that affects the eyes. According to the National Eye Institute, 40% of Americans over age 40 have some degree of diabetic retinopathy, and one of every 12 people with diabetes in this age group has advanced, vision-threatening retinopathy.
That’s a condition that results when small blood vessels in the retina leak blood or other fluids that cause progressive damage to the retina, which is the light-sensitive lining at the back of the eye.
“Once someone is diagnosed with diabetes, they need yearly eye exams to detect it,” Jusko said.
Treatment ranges from the use of lasers to injections and surgical procedures, and primary-care physicians usually work closely with the person to ensure their blood-sugar levels and blood pressure are under control.
Hope for the Future
Dry eye is another condition that can affect people of any age, but is more prevalent in elders and post-menopausal women. It results from inadequate tear production and causes burning, stinging, itching, or the feeling that sand is in the eyes.
It can be alleviated with over-the-counter lubricating drops, fish-oil supplements, and vitamin C. But dry eye that is moderate or severe can cause damage, so people whose symptoms aren’t helped with over-the-counter remedies should see their eye doctor.
There is no doubt that eyesight is affected as people age, but there are things everyone can do to help to prevent disease. Eyes need good blood circulation and oxygen intake, and since both are stimulated by regular exercise, it ranks high on the list.
People should also do their best to maintain normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and wear sunglasses that block ultraviolet light.
But getting an annual eye exam is the most important measure anyone can take to preserve vision.
“Eyesight is our most important sense,” said Guzek-Latka. “We rely on it for so many things, and having good vision is a driving factor in people’s well-being as they age.”