Poor Vision Affects More Than Your Eyes

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Don’t be short-sighted when it comes to getting your eyes checked. Mounting evidence continues to strongly suggest that impaired vision can have far-reaching consequences for both mental and physical health. Below are some ways poor vision can have an impact on your life.

Depression. Researchers have established that impaired vision is a significant risk factor for depression in older adults. Studies have found that people with vision loss are two to three times more likely to be depressed than the general population.

In a study published in July 2019 in JAMA Ophthalmology, researchers analyzed data from 7,584 people, ages 65 and older. Over five years, more than two in five participants who reported impaired vision developed clinically significant symptoms of depression or anxiety, compared with less than one in five with good vision.

Cognitive decline. High-quality evidence associates cognitive decline more often in adults with impaired vision than in those with good eyesight. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), published in May 2019 in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, revealed a strong connection between impaired vision and an increased risk of developing cognitive decline that stopped people from performing certain everyday functions, such as managing finances and using the telephone.

Discrimination. Some older adults report feeling discriminated against because of their visual impairment. In a British study published in JAMA Ophthalmology in May 2019, more than half of adults ages 50 and older with poor vision or blindness perceived that they were treated with less respect, poorer service or treatment in restaurants and stores, and poorer service and treatment from doctors and hospitals.

They tended to avoid situations where they weren’t treated well, leading to social withdrawal. They were more likely to report feeling lonely and having depressive symptoms, which also had a negative effect on their quality of life and well-being.

Chronic disease. The consequences of poor eyesight are associated with conditions that go well beyond the brain. In a study published in the American Journal of Ophthalmology in October 2017, researchers reported that people ages 65 and older with impaired vision were significantly more likely to have other serious health conditions, specifically arthritis, asthma, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, depression, diabetes, hearing loss, heart disease, hepatitis, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and stroke.

Some conditions can have a direct effect on eyesight, such as diabetes, which can cause diabetic retinopathy. Impaired vision’s impact on other conditions may be less direct. For example, people who can’t see well may be less likely to be active, which can increase their risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions. People with impaired vision may have difficulty reading food labels and making healthy meal choices. They may also have trouble reading medication labels, making it hard for them to follow doctors’ orders.

A study published in JAMA Ophthalmology in June 2019 found that, compared to people with good eyesight, those with severe vision loss who had to be hospitalized remained there longer and were more likely to have to be readmitted within the next 30 days.

Life expectancy. A study published in JAMA Ophthalmology in 2014 tied poor vision to reduced life expectancy. Researchers tracked the vision of more than 2,500 people ages 65 to 84 over eight years by testing them annually using a standard eye chart. A pattern emerged that tied failing eyesight to a loss of independent function such as shopping, preparing meals, and using the phone. The researchers calculated that the participants with poor vision had a 16 percent increased risk of premature death due to their declining health and loss of functional independence.

Falls. Visual impairment in older adults is associated with an increased risk of falls, fear of falling, and as a result, limited activity. A 2014 CDC study estimated that, of 2.8 million Americans ages 65 and older with severe visual impairment, nearly half had fallen at least once in the previous year. However, the researchers couldn’t establish that poor vision caused all the falls.

How often should you have an eye exam?
The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that everyone have a comprehensive dilated eye exam at age 40 to establish a baseline for eye health. After age 65, you should have your eyes checked every one to two years. A comprehensive exam can detect early signs of eye problems or damage—many age-related eye diseases have no symptoms until they’re at advanced states. If you’re at high risk for eye disease, such as having diabetes, you should visit your eye doctor yearly, no matter your age.