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updated 12/10/2003 5:32:39 PM ET 2003-12-10T22:32:39

By age 65, 1-in-3 Americans have some form of vision-impairing eye disease. Most however do not know it because often there’s no warning symptoms or they assume that poor sight is a natural part of growing older. By detecting and treating eye disease early through annual, dilated eye exams, seniors can preserve their sight. Jim Miller, editor of Savvy Senior, a syndicated column for seniors.

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The four most common eye diseases facing seniors today are cataracts, glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration and diabetic eye disease. Here is a brief outline on each disease.

CATARACTS

A cataract is a clouding of the lens in the eye that affects vision. Most cataracts are related to aging and are very common in older people. In fact, by age 80, more than half of all Americans either have a cataract or have had cataract surgery.

Symptoms

Cloudy or blurry vision.

Colors seem faded.

Glare. Headlights, lamps, or sunlight may appear too bright. A halo may appear around lights.

Poor night vision.

Double vision or multiple images in one eye. (This symptom may clear as the cataract gets larger.)

Frequent prescription changes in your eyeglasses or contact lenses.

Treatment

The symptoms of early cataract may be improved with new eyeglasses, brighter lighting, anti-glare sunglasses, or magnifying lenses. If these don’t help, surgery is the only effective treatment. Surgery involves removing the cloudy lens and replacing it with an artificial lens.

GLAUCOMA

Glaucoma is a group of diseases that can damage the eye’s optic nerve. It is one of the leading causes of blindness in the United States, and the most common cause of blindness among African-Americans. More than three million people have glaucoma, but half do not realize it because there are often no warning symptoms.

Symptoms

In most cases, there are no symptoms during the early stages of the disease, however, as glaucoma progresses, it slowly damages the optic nerve fibers of the eye and the field of vision narrows which can create “blind spots” within the field of vision.

Who’s at Risk

People who:

Have a family history of glaucoma

African Americans over age 40

Have diabetes

Are age 60 or older

Treatment

Medication in the form of eyedrops or pills, are the most common early treatment for glaucoma. Laser or conventional surgery are also available options when needed.

AGE-RELATED MACULAR DEGENERATION

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a leading cause of vision loss in Americans 60 years of age and older. AMD is a disease that blurs the sharp, central vision you need for straight-ahead activities such as reading, sewing, and driving. AMD affects the macula, the part of the eye that allows you to see fine detail.

AMD occurs in both a wet and dry form of the condition. Slow occurring or dry AMD affects 90 percent of those with the condition. Fast occurring or wet AMD affects 10 percent of AMD cases.

Symptoms

Slightly blurred vision is the most common symptom of AMD. Other symptoms may include wavy lines or a blind spot in the center of the field of vision.

Who’s at risk?

Persons over age 75

Women

Smokers

Those with a family history of AMD

Persons with elevated levels of blood cholesterol.

Treatment

Medication and/or laser surgery can aid some cases of wet AMD. At the present time, there is not an effective treatment for advanced dry AMD, however treatment can delay and possibly prevent intermediate AMD from progressing to the advanced stage, in which vision loss occurs.

DIABETIC EYE DISEASE

Approximately 16 million people in the United States have diabetes and one-third of them do not know it. People with diabetes are 25 times more likely to become blind than people without it.

Diabetic eye disease refers to a group of vision impairing eye problems that people with diabetes may develop such as diabetic retinopathy as well as glaucoma and cataracts. People with diabetes should have a professional eye examination as soon as their diabetes is diagnosed, and at least once a year thereafter.

By detecting and treating diabetic eye disease early through annual, dilated eye exams, people with diabetes can preserve their sight.

EYE CARE PROGRAMS

Best Community Resource

Lions Clubs

The best way to learn about free or discounted eye care or eyeglasses programs in your community is to call your local Lions Club. Lions Clubs are recognized worldwide for their service to the blind and visually impaired. This service began in 1925 when Helen Keller challenged the Lions to become “knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness.”

Lions Clubs services and eligibility requirements will vary depending on where you live. For more information call your local Lions Club chapter or call Lions Club International at 1-800-747-4448 or visit www.lionsclubs.org.

LensCrafters Gift of Sight: Partners with Lions Clubs and offers free vision screening and new glasses to people in need. They also offer an OutReach program where LensCrafters volunteers visit nursing homes, hospitals and senior centers to adjust eyewear, and provide free vision screenings. For more information call your local LensCrafters store or call 1-800-541-LENS or visit www.lenscrafters.com.

NATIONAL PROGRAMS

EyeCare America

Coordinated by the American Academy of Ophthalmology, EyeCare America is a medical eye care program that helps seniors reduce avoidable visual impairment and blindness by educating and providing access to eye care at NO out-of-pocket expense.

EyeCare America offers three basic programs relevant to the boomer and senior population. They include:

Senior EyeCare

Glaucoma EyeCare

Diabetes EyeCare

Each of these individual programs have specific qualifications you’ll have to meet to be eligible, none of which are income based. Call for qualification details and screening.

Those eligible will receive a comprehensive, medical eye exam and up to one year of treatment at no out-of-pocket expense. Volunteer ophthalmologists will accept Medicare or other insurance as full payment. Patients without insurance receive care at no cost. EyeCare America has over 7,500 ophthalmologists nationwide that participate in this program.

For more information call 1-800-222-EYES (3937), 24 hours a day, seven days a week or visit www.eyecareamerica.org.

Vision USA

Coordinated by the American Optometric Association (AOA), Vision USA provides free eye care to the many uninsured and low-income workers and their families who have no other means of obtaining care. Call 1-800-766-4466 or visit www.aoa.org and click on “Public Programs.”

Mission Cataract USA

Coordinated by the Volunteer Eye Surgeons’ Association, they provide free cataract surgery to people of all ages who have no other means to pay. For more information call 1-800-343-7265.

EYEGLASSES PROGRAM

New Eyes for the Needy

Accepts donations of used prescription eyeglasses and distributes them to people with limited incomes. Recipients must have a letter of referral from a social services agency. Call 1-973-376-4903 for more information or write:

New Eyes for the Needy 549 Millburn AvenueShort Hills NJ 07078

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