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Take Care of Your Ears and Eyes

Hearing and vision problems can affect brain health

Take care of your eyes and ears

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For people with hearing loss, even a small decrease in vision can affect the ability to lip-read and understand better what they hear.

Those of us with more than just moderate hearing loss tend to take care of our hearing.

We make sure our hearing aids are in good working order, and any new symptoms — dizziness, ringing in the ear, a drop in hearing — cause us to promptly go to the ear doctor.

But what about our eyes?

Unfortunately, the eyes, like much of the rest of the body, become more susceptible to disease and other issues as we get older. Some problems are serious and can lead to blindness, if left untreated. But for people with hearing loss, even a small decrease in vision can affect the ability to lip-read and thus understand better what they hear.

The combination of vision and hearing problems can also decrease the ability to socialize, which has been linked to a greater risk of dementia.

A 2014 study of nearly 900 European adults age 75-plus with hearing problems and more than 27,000 Europeans age 50-plus with vision problems found that people with vision or hearing problems were less socially active than those without sensory problems, and those with both vision and hearing problems were the least socially active.

Among the serious vision conditions we may face as we age:

  • Age-related macular degeneration, a deterioration of the portion of the retina responsible for central vision, is the leading cause of vision loss in the U.S. According to the American Academy of Opthalmology, the risk of getting macular degeneration jumps from about 2 percent of people in their 50s to nearly 30 percent in people over age 75.
  • Cataracts, a clouding of the eye's lens, can affect one or both eyes and are very common — by age 80, more than half of Americans either have it or have had cataract surgery, according to the National Eye Institute.
  • Retinal problems affect people with diabetes disproportionately, but can occur in anyone and can cause blindness if not treated.
  • Glaucoma, the leading cause of blindness, can develop without symptoms, so regular eye checkups are important.
  • Dry eyes may not sound like a problem, but million of Americans suffer from this painful, irritating condition that can affect vision. Some 20 million to 30 million older Americans have a mild condition, while 9 million suffer a moderate to severe case. "In patients over 50, dry eye is the most prevalent — and under-recognized and undertreated — condition out there," Alan Carlson, M.D., professor of ophthalmology at Duke University School of Medicine, told AARP. "Virtually everyone over 55 has some degree of dryness." There are treatments, generally over-the-counter eye drops, but don't ignore the problem. It can result in a deterioration of vision.

Recently I started having painful itching in my right eye and the vision in that eye was blurry. I dismissed this as allergies, but a few weeks ago I began waking up in the middle of the night with stabbing headaches. I knew I should see my ophthalmologist — especially when I realized it had been almost two years since I'd had a checkup.

I regarded these new symptoms as bizarre, but not really worrisome. But when I mentioned them to a physician, she said I should go straight to the eye doctor.

I got some eye drops and made an appointment. In the meantime, I wanted to share the lesson learned. My physician friend put the fear of blindness in me, and I'll never be so casual about my vision again.

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