En español l Eyes may not be a window to the soul, as poets have claimed, but eyesight is certainly a window on the world. As boomers age, however, millions of them will struggle with some kind of eye disease. Over age 40, an estimated 25 million people have cataracts and more than 2.5 million have glaucoma; more than 2 million men and women over age 50 have age-related macular degeneration.
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Unfortunately, eye diseases often sneak up on us without warning. Here's what experts say about these three common vision conditions — how they affect the eyes, who's at risk and what treatments are available — along with developments that will help protect your eyes in the years ahead.
Cataracts are a price that many of us pay for growing older. Light normally passes through the eye's clear lens to the retina, the light-sensitive area at the back of the eye. Sometime after age 40, small clumps of protein can form in the lens and cause it to become cloudy — and the loss of vision cannot be corrected with glasses or contact lenses. This clouding is called a cataract.
Treatment: There is no cure for cataracts; surgery is the only effective treatment. "Most people consider surgery only when reduced vision interferes with activities like driving, work or hobbies," says Richard Braunstein, M.D., of the North Shore-LIJ Health System in New York.
Before surgery a doctor will ask how you want to see out of that eye. You can choose a basic monofocal lens that will allow the eye to see clearly either close up or at a distance. You also can opt for a premium lens, such as one that corrects astigmatism, or a multifocal lens that can potentially restore a full range of vision without eyeglasses. Keep in mind that Medicare or private insurance won't pay the generally hefty extra cost of these premium lenses.
During the operation the surgeon will make a small opening in the cornea (the front part of the eye), insert a tiny high-frequency ultrasound probe to break the cloudy lens into fine particles, vacuum them out and then implant a clear artificial lens. It's often done in as little as 15 minutes. Painful? No, you'll receive an anesthetic eyedrop or injection as well as a sedative to relax you.
Looking ahead: A new procedure called laser-assisted cataract surgery uses a computer-guided laser to deliver pulses of energy to perform some of the steps that are now carried out with handheld instruments. Studies are now under way to evaluate the safety and advantages of this new technology. Private insurance or Medicare may not cover part of the cost. Ask your doctor.
Next page: Macular degeneration and glaucoma. »