Eye problems to increase with aging population
Prevention the key to avoiding 'big three'
By: By Megan Sarrazin
| Posted: Wednesday, Aug 15, 2012 06:00 am
As St. Albert's senior population continues to increase, more residents can expect to fall victim to age-related vision impairments.
Dr. Samuel Boucher, optometrist at St. Albert's Eye Health Centre, says aging affects every component of the eye, from the lids and cornea to the lens and retina.
The “big three” most common age-related eye problems are cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration.
“Cataracts are the number one worldwide reason for blindness and affect 2.5-million Canadians,” Boucher said. “It's something that will eventually affect everybody with aging. If we're old enough, we'll get cataracts.”
In Canada, however, cataracts are not a significant concern because surgeries are offered to repair vision, he said. Standard surgeries are covered by the Alberta Health Care Insurance Plan and once an individual undergoes surgery cataracts will not reappear.
Boucher said cataracts can develop at any age but are most common for those between 75 and 80 years old.
“They'll feel that their glasses are always dirty and they want to clean them but it doesn't help,” he said. “It's harder to see details, like road signs when driving and there's more glare, especially at nighttime.”
An aging population will also increase the number of individuals with glaucoma, or the “silent blinder.”
While 400,000 Canadians are confirmed to have glaucoma, Boucher believes the true number is at least double because many people are unaware they have it.
Glaucoma slowly wears away peripheral vision. Progression can be slowed if detected early, although it can lead to blindness if left untreated.
“We need regular eye exams and that's why we call it the silent blinder because people won't notice it,” Boucher said, adding screening for glaucoma is standard in regular eye exams.
Another eye illness where prevention is key is macular degeneration, which affects more than one million Canadians by wearing away their central vision.
“Central vision is our detail vision, so we often start to lose detail when they're reading, driving, recognizing people, and eventually, as it progresses some more, we lose that central vision,” Boucher said.
He said he expects age-related blindness to double in the next two decades, mostly from macular degeneration.
“Our biggest concern is macular degeneration,” Boucher said. “Why macular degeneration is more of a problem is because we don't have a fix.”
Life expectancy in Canada continues to climb, with the average for women and men reaching 83 and 79 years respectively, according to Statistics Canada. This is a significant increase over 50 years ago, when women were expected to live 74 years and men 68.
St. Albert's senior population has been steadily increasing for more than a decade, representing 5.9 per cent of the population more than 65 years old in 1996, compared to 13.9 per cent currently, according to the City of St. Albert's preliminary 2012 census statistics.
An aging population will increase the prevalence of eye illness, although a lifelong commitment to prevention could help curb it, Boucher said.
Modifiable risk factors, including smoking, ultraviolet exposure, diet and lifestyle, can negatively impact the eye as one ages. It's a struggle to get young people to pay attention to this risk, he said.
“There's a lot of education that still needs to be done. It's just hard for the people to get the message when they don't feel it applies to them,” he said.
He said one of his concerns can be curbed simply by wearing sunglasses since the majority of ultraviolet exposure occurs in childhood and can have negative effects down the road.
“With the knowledge that we have today and the sunglasses and the tools that we have, there's no good reason that we should have all that UV exposure at a young age that's going to be a problem later on,” he said.
A misconception leaving many out of the exam chair is that good vision means good eye health.
Boucher said it is still important for these individuals to have regular exams, as well as be aware of family history of eye illness.