Vision specialists are sitting directly in the eye of the storm – the storm of more than 2.8 million baby boomers who turn 60 this year.
When the post-World War II generation entered their 40s and began straining their eyes to read the newspaper or squinting at the lights impeding their night vision, they created job security for optometrists and ophthalmologists by their sheer numbers, said Dr. Tony Ikehara, a Colorado Springs optometrist and owner of Advanced Eye Care.
Aging boomers will likely face inherent conditions like cataracts; some will experience more serious problems like macular degeneration.
Denying vision challenges could make things worse, exacerbating eye conditions that may already exist, Ikehara said.
Dr. Richard Edlow, chairman of the information and data committee of the American Optometric Association, said that while straining or squinting doesn’t “necessarily cause permanent damage to the eyes or visual system, it creates significant discomfort and reduces one’s reading comprehension; thereby, reducing productivity.”
A major cause of eye strain today is the computer. The boomer generation extends from 1946 to 1964, and many are still in the work force, joined at the hip to their computers and laptops. “More than 143 million Americans work on computers every day,” Ikehara said. “And 88 percent of them suffer from some form of computer eye strain, headaches, loss of focus, burning or tired eyes, double or blurred vision and neck or shoulder pain.
“Your brain and eyes are constantly shifting focus to keep the pixels on the screen clear. Most people can read for hours, but looking at a computer screen is different. Your eyes are constantly flexing to change focus point.”
Ikehara advises prescription glasses designed specifically for heavy computer use. He also suggests ergonomic desk designs, which include non-glare screens and correct posturing.
Blinking helps to prevent computer-related dry-eye syndrome.
“As we have birthdays, we produce fewer tears,” Edlow said. “Studies have shown that our blink rate decreases when viewing the computer … the blinking action helps to coat the cornea with the proper tear film. It is recommended that boomer computer users consciously blink more frequently and use artificial tear drops.”
Ikehara recommends the 20/20 rule: “Look to the distance every 20 minutes and blink your eyes for 20 seconds.”
Strained vision heightened by the computer age is just one of the issues facing aging boomers. Glaucoma, diabetic retinitis, macular degeneration and cataracts are on the upsurge as well.
Ikehara said 20 million Americans have cataracts today. In 2020, he said that number will increase to 30 million.
“Everyone will get a cataract if they live long enough,” he said. “With surgery, the eyesight is restored at a success rate of 95 percent.”
The majority of baby boomers, however, aren’t worried about cataracts.
Boomers are concerned with how declining vision influences their participation in sports, and they are “absolutely” a vainer group than previous older generations, Edlow said.
But today’s frames are all about fashion and functionality. “Fashionable frames with progressive (no-line) bifocals with anti-glare lenses are the way to go,” he said.
Today’s frames also are thinner, lighter and stronger, with less distortion, Ikehara said. Materials, like the titanium that is currently used for frames, are superior and less resistant to allergic reactions. He said the best providers offer quality frames with a two-to-five-year warranty.
Many active older adults are opting for LASIK – laser-assisted eye surgery. “I’ve seen a lot of skiers who want LASIK,” Ikehara said. However, it’s not a cure-all. He said it works for some but not all, and those who have close-up vision problems will still need to wear glasses to read or work on the computer.
Contacts are a viable option for many active people. Ikehara offers a no-obligation test drive. “I go with ‘try before you buy.’ I fit them with lenses and ask them to walk around the office for awhile,” he said. “Some find out that contacts are not for everyone.”
Technology has not only improved contacts, eye glasses, frames and surgical procedures but also has redefined examination equipment. Ikehara said he owns one of only two digital camera systems in Colorado Springs. “The digital camera system allows for earlier detection of vision problems … better clarity … like picking up early bleeding … and it helps in educating patients about what’s going on,” he said. “You get more value with digital pictures.”
Value also is important when people are looking for vision specialists.
“Many people go wherever it’s cheapest, but that is not always best,” Ikehara said. “A 15-minute exam is not enough. You want a quality eye exam with someone who is not willing to do what you say you want.”
Some clients tell their optometrist they don’t want to be dilated for the exam. “For a thorough exam, you need dilation,” he said. “Requesting no dilation is the same thing as telling your mechanic you don’t have to look under the hood for a complete auto check.”
Besides regular check ups (Ikehara said every one to two years for healthy people; for others with physical problems or more serious vision issues, the frequency of eye exams depends on one’s health condition), there are other ways to prevent serious eye problems.
“Always protect your eyes,” Ikehara said. “Wear sunglasses and don’t smoke.”
Good nutrition also is important to eye health. Ikehara said drink plenty of water and eat leafy greens. “In 2001, the National Eye Institute published an age-related eye disease study on the effects of ocular nutrition,” he said. “They found that nutritional supplements (like vitamins A, C, E and zinc) are an effective therapy against macular degeneration.”
While nutrition helps, exercising the eye does nothing to improve one’s vision. Ikehara said companies that promote eye exercises are a “kind of quackery system, and it doesn’t work.”
The dime-store reader glasses work, if the eyes are even in power, Ikehara said. “Most people, however, have some difference in each eye.”
Vision trouble is a natural part of aging, and vision care is critical to overall health, he said. Especially for a generation that will storm into their 60s and 70s with blue-sky expectations of a youthful lifestyle.