The quality of your eyesight is genetic, right?
You’re born with it. There’s nothing you can do about it.
Well, yes, and no. You are born with a genetic predisposition toward some aspects of your vision. According to a 2018 study, scientists have mapped many genes and their variants that can influence vision and the health of our eyes.
But other studies have found that certain lifestyle habits—like smoking and eating an unhealthy diet—can also determine how healthy your eyes are.
Certain genes can make you more likely to suffer from myopia, for example, which means that distant objects are blurry, while closer objects look clear. Genes can also cause hyperopia, which is the opposite—you can see far objects, but closer ones look blurry.
Genes are behind astigmatism too, which is a condition in which the curvature of the cornea leads to blurry vision, and even presbyopia, in which we have a harder time reading as we get older.
But as in anything that has to do with the health of our bodies, it’s not all about your genes. The choices you make every day can tip the scales for or against you, meaning that you do have a great deal of control over how healthy your eyes are throughout your lifetime.
It’s important to be aware of what those choices are, as according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), the number of people affected by potentially blinding eye diseases is expected to double in the years ahead.
Normal Ways Your Vision Deteriorates As You Age
Below are some of the common vision changes that we may experience as we get older. We typically can’t do much to control them, but we can make adjustments in our lives to continue to see clearly.
Presbyopia: This is a condition in which we gradually lose the ability to see things clearly up close. It is a normal part of aging. Reading or other close-up activities like sewing become more challenging. This is when many of us invest in reader glasses, which magnify objects so that we can better see what we’re doing.
Difficult Night Vision: Night driving can become more challenging as we age because the eyes take longer to adjust and focus in the dark than they used to. We can try anti-glare glasses, or simply limit nighttime driving.
Dry Eyes: As the eyes get older, they become less efficient at producing tears, which can lead to dry-eye syndrome. Working with screens all day (on computers, tablets, and phones) doesn’t help. Over-the-counter eye drops can ease symptoms.
Loss of Vision Sensitivity: With age, it becomes more difficult to distinguish objects from backgrounds of similar color—a loss of contrast sensitivity. You may notice that it’s more difficult driving in the fog or rain, or have trouble reading when the paper is not a bright white or when the ink is not a deep black.
Swollen Eyes: Mild inflammation and swelling in the eyes can become more common with age, often due to hormonal changes or because the tissues around the eyes weaken, including some of the muscles supporting the eyelids. Getting enough sleep, applying cool compresses, addressing allergies, and using a lifting eye cream can help.
Flashes of Light: Occasional flashes of light can be a sign of aging. It's like seeing shooting stars or lightning streaks. Usually, these occur because the vitreous gel inside the eye shrinks or changes, pulling on the retina. Occasional flashes are harmless, but repeated ones could be a sign of a more serious problem.
Spots or Floaters: If you’re seeing more floaters in your vision lately, that could be a harmless sign of aging eyes. The jelly-like substance filling the middle of the eye can thicken or shrink, releasing tiny clumps of gel that form these floaters.
Glare Sensitivity: You may become more sensitive to glare as you get older, particularly the glare from headlights, screens, or household lighting. Anti-glare filters on your computer and tablet screens can help, as can anti-glare sunglasses and night glasses.
Cataracts: When the lens inside the eye becomes cloudy—the result of protein buildup—it can form a cataract that affects vision. About half of Americans over the age of 75 develop cataracts, but they can begin much earlier, in our later 40s and 50s.
Age-Related Eye Conditions That Are Not Inevitable
Other age-related eye conditions are the result of genetics combined with poor lifestyle habits. High blood pressure, high blood sugar, obesity, smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, and more can all put you at a higher risk for these conditions.
Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD): AMD is a common eye disease that usually strikes after the age of 50. It will gradually affect central vision.
Glaucoma: This disease damages the optic nerve and typically affects older adults. It can develop in secret, with no symptoms until it’s more advanced.
Diabetic Eye Disease: Diabetes can affect the eyes, causing diabetic retinopathy, a leading cause of vision loss in adults.
Eye Cancer: This disease is rare, but it can strike the eyes as we age. Early symptoms often go unnoticed, which is why regular eye exams are important.
Vision-Damaging Falls: Sometimes when older adults fall, they can suffer from injuries that damage their eyes. Falling becomes more likely as we age because of changes in balance and vision.
What Causes Bad Eyesight as We Age? 10 Bad Habits
Smoking: You know that smoking can increase your risk of heart disease and cancer. What you may not know is that it can also increase your risk of vision loss. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that if you smoke, you are twice as likely to develop AMD compared with people who don’t smoke. You’re also two to three times more likely to develop cataracts and twice as likely to develop dry eye syndrome.
Eating an Unhealthy Diet: Research shows that eating an unhealthy diet that fails to deliver needed nutrients to the eyes can increase the risk of eye disease. In a 2018 study, researchers found that visual impairment increased with decreasing diet quality, specifically low intake of antioxidants (found in fruits and vegetables) and omega-3 fatty acids (found in fatty fish, nuts, seeds, and plant oils).
Failing to Exercise Regularly: Regular exercise is good for your overall health, and it can also help protect the health of your eyes as you get older. Research shows that low physical activity has been associated with a higher risk of AMD and dry eye disease. Children who are sedentary are also more likely to suffer from poor vision.
Failing to Prevent or Treat Diabetes: High blood sugar levels damage the tiny blood vessels around the retina, causing them to leak fluid and bleed. The eye tries to cope by creating new blood vessels, but often these don’t work as well, worsening vision. Preventing and treating diabetes is very important to eye health.
Letting Your Blood Pressure Escalate: High blood pressure causes the retinal blood vessels to thicken and narrow, reducing blood flow. It can also trigger swelling in the retina and optic nerve, causing vision loss that may be permanent. Likely, you won't notice symptoms of high blood pressure, so it's best to get it checked regularly and to adopt healthy habits to avoid it.
Not Asking Your Doctor About Obesity: The prevalence of obesity has reached epidemic proportions in many countries. Unfortunately, it has been linked with age-related cataracts, glaucoma, AMD, and diabetic retinopathy. If you're struggling with your weight, check with your doctor for options that may help.
- Not Wearing Sunglasses Often Enough: You know that ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun can burn and damage your skin. Did you know that they can do the same to your eyes? UV exposure has been associated with cataract formation and retinal degeneration. In one study, those with a doubling in lifetime UV-B exposure had a 60 percent increase in the risk of cortical cataracts, and those with a high annual UV-B exposure increased their risk over threefold.
Using Screens Too Much: TV, computer, tablet, and phone screens emit light that over time, can cause eye strain and fatigue, which can lead to headaches. You tend to blink less when staring at a screen, and the movement on the screen itself makes your eyes work harder to focus. Other possible side effects include dry and irritated eyes, and loss of focus flexibility.
More recent research has linked the high use of computer and phone screens to several progressive eye disorders, such as dry eye disease and myopia, which are now becoming more common in younger people.
Not Getting Enough Sleep: Getting a good night’s sleep is critical to your health. We now know that poor sleep may be linked to deteriorating vision and even a higher risk of glaucoma and other eye problems.
In a large study involving more than 400,000 people, researchers found that people who had unhealthy sleep patterns were more likely to develop glaucoma than those with healthy sleep patterns. Those who had insomnia or who slept too much or too little had a 13 percent higher risk. Other studies have shown that poor sleep can elevate the risk of dry eye disease.
Ignoring Your Eye Doctor: Many eye problems—including glaucoma, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, and AMD—exist for a long time before they cause any symptoms. Early detection can help you delay the progression of these diseases, preserving your vision.
Tests taken during an eye exam show many facets of eye health that may signal a problem before you notice any vision changes. Alterations in the blood vessels in your eyes can also signal other unhealthy conditions you may not be aware of, such as high blood pressure or high blood sugar.
Easy Tips to Protect Your Eyes
Eat More Fruits and Veggies, and Try an ARED Supplement: Fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidant ingredients that help protect the eyes from oxidation, which is a big factor in several types of eye diseases. Fatty fish, nuts, seeds, eggs, and plant oils are rich in omega-3 nutrients that can help reduce the risk of eye pressure, potentially reducing the risk of glaucoma while easing the symptoms of dry eye syndrome.
The Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) found that supplement formulations containing combinations of vitamin C, E, beta-carotene, zinc, and copper reduced the risk of AMD. Lutein and zeaxanthin supplements are also thought to help protect eye health and may help reduce the risk of AMD and cataracts.
- Avoid Unhealthy Foods: Research has shown that some foods are bad for our eyes and may increase our risk of eye diseases and vision loss. Foods to avoid include the following:
- Diet soda: In one study, those who consumed high levels of diet soft drinks (more than four cans/bottles per week) had a 2.5 times increased risk of diabetic retinopathy. A later study found similar results.
- Regular soda: Regular soda is full of sugar, and consuming it too often has been linked with a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity—all of which can negatively affect eye health.
- High-sodium items: deli meats, frozen dinners, pizza, pickles, fried foods, and many canned goods are often very high in sodium. One study found that a higher intake of sodium is associated with a greater risk of developing fast-growing cataracts. Other research indicates it could negatively affect the retina.
- Refined carbohydrates: Foods that break down quickly in your system and spike blood sugar levels can lead to eye health problems. Examples include bagels, white rice, white bread, pastries, muffins, and certain sugary cereals. Choose whole-grain foods instead.
Processed foods: Most processed foods are high in fat, sugar, and sodium, which means they aren’t good for your eyesight. Always read the nutrition facts on the label, and in general, limit your intake of unhealthy packaged items.
3. Wear Your Sunglasses: Regularly protecting your eyes from damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays can help you avoid damage from the sun. Look for those that provide 100 percent UV absorption or that block both UVA and UVB rays.
4. Keep an Eye on Your Numbers: High blood pressure and high blood sugar can both damage your eye health, so make sure that you’re getting these checked every year. If they are elevated, ask your doctor about options for reducing them.
5. Take Regular Breaks from Screens: The less time you spend in front of a computer, tablet, and phone, the better for your eyes. If you work in an office, sit at least an arm's length away from the computer and look away from the screen for at least 20 seconds every 20 minutes. Avoid holding any device too close to your face, and try to get outdoors and focus on distant options for at least 15 minutes every day.
6. Exercise Daily: Moderate exercise for 30 minutes a day, five times a week, can help protect you from dangerous eye diseases. Good options include taking a walk or bike ride, heading to the gym, doing an exercise video, dancing, hiking, or rollerblading.
7. Stop Smoking: If you smoke, talk to your doctor about options that may help you quit. Realize that it may take more than one try to succeed.
8. Get 7-8 Hours of Sleep Per Day: Create a sleep routine that helps you get the recommended 7-8 hours per night. If you're struggling with insomnia, talk to your doctor about solutions. Make sure to put the technology away at least an hour before bed, as it can stimulate hormones that will keep you up.
9. Keep Your Eyes Hydrated: Tears not only lubricate the eyes but help keep them healthy. They also help you to see clearly. If your eyes feel dry and gritty, use eye drops to keep them moisturized. If you suffer from dry eye symptoms, talk to your eye doctor about prescription eye drops.
10. See Your Eye Doctor: A general eye exam is recommended every one to two years. If you have a family history of eye disease, see your eye doctor more often.