As time goes by

From the moment we’re born our eyes are changing, Ceri-Smith Jaynes turns her focus to ageing and the eye

An elderly couple sitting on a bench

What makes a child's eye look so bright and young? Apart from the lack of wrinkles, the whites of the eyes are more blue-white and the pupil is larger than an adult’s. Over the years, the whites of your eye thicken and change to yellow-white as an effect of time and UV exposure. Your pupil gets smaller and the coloured part of the eye, the iris, looks less defined around the edge, too.

If you’re entering your mid-to-late forties and you’ve had a history of good distance vision, you may find yourself complaining about magazine print getting smaller. Inexplicably, you’ll also be grumbling about the lack of good music in the ‘pop’ charts. After a period of denial, you’ll (hopefully) head to the optometrist who’ll prescribe reading glasses. 

The change is known as presbyopia and no, it’s not contagious. It’s a normal effect from the ageing of the lens in the eye, which gradually becomes stiffer. To focus close up, you need to flex the lens into a different shape using a muscle. That muscle is still working, but it’s trying to pull on the stiffer material, which is why you can’t exercise the problem away. So while good lighting will make reading a little easier, the simplest solution is to wear glasses or contact lenses.

Benjamin Franklin famously said: 'In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’. He could have added: ‘…except death, taxes and cataracts

Benjamin Franklin famously said: ‘In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’. He could have added: ‘…except death, taxes and cataracts’. Cataracts are a normal ageing change of the eye and you’ll certainly get them if you live long enough. The term cataracts is used to describe any kind of opacity or clouding in the lens of the eye, which gradually yellows and hardens and eventually becomes cloudy. The good news is it can be sorted by a surgeon in about 15 minutes under local anaesthetic. The cloudy lens is removed and a lovely clear one put in, made to your prescription.

After surgery, most people will also notice colours looking more vivid especially blue. If you’re on the cataract surgery waiting list and thinking of changing your home décor, you might want to hang on until after the op’ – I once had a patient who returned home from cataract surgery horrified by the garish colour she’d chosen for the hall carpet.

Another eye condition that can affect older people is age-related macular degeneration (AMD). It's a disease of the central part of the retina, called the macula and makes the central vision blurred or distorted. There’s some evidence that good nutrition can help lower your risk of developing it, so eat plenty of dark green, leafy vegetables, like spinach and kale along with other fruit and vegetables as part of a balanced diet. 

In the absence of a rewind-life button, is there anything else you can you do about all this? Good sunglasses will offer protection from UV rays, which are partly responsible for ageing of the eye. And don’t even think about smoking; it is an eye health disaster. Quit now. Get help. 

The risk of getting an eye disease increases the older you get, so don’t wait until you notice a problem with your vision to have an eye examination. Optometrists can pick up health problems and eye diseases you were unaware of and it’s a lot easier to treat eye disease in the early stages.

Read more about eye conditions, and don't forget to ask your optometrist. They’re a mine of useful information.

Ceri Smith-JaynesCeri Smith-Jaynes is OT’s Multimedia Clinical Editor and is an optometrist in independent practice in Lancashire