In Australia, most causes of blindness and low vision are caused by age-related conditions, which is why vision problems are more common in our senior citizens. As Australia’s population is gradually aging, these conditions are becoming more common, more understood, and more likely to be recognised and treated in their early stages.
However, many conditions which affect vision are caused by other means, including disease and trauma. These conditions are more likely to strike in people who aren’t expecting them, which is why it’s important to know what signs to look out for and act as soon as you realise something is wrong.
Read on to find out about some of Australia’s most common causes of low vision and blindness, and how to spot when something isn’t right.
Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD)
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a progressive condition which causes vision loss by affecting the central part of the retina (the macula) which is responsible for fine vision. It’s the leading cause of blindness in Australia for people over age 55, and makes up about 50% of age-related vision loss.
AMD can be classed as either dry (geographic AMD) or wet (neovascular AMD). Although both types of AMD can be easily diagnosed and slowed by treatment, neither can be reversed or cured. This makes it especially important to catch AMD in its early stages. Signs to watch out for include blurred or fuzzy vision, having difficulty reading, or having an abnormal result when using an Amsler grid.
The main cause of AMD isn’t fully understood yet, but research shows that your chance of developing it is by increased age, smoking, having high blood pressure, and obesity. This means that the best way to reduce your risk of AMD is by living a healthy, active lifestyle and eating a nutritious diet.
Glaucoma is a group of eye conditions which cause damage to the optic nerve. It causes blindness if left untreated, and about 15% of people who suffer from it will eventually become blind in at least one eye (even with treatment). It’s most common in people over age 50, but can affect people of any age.
Primary Glaucoma has two main types: open-angle glaucoma, and acute angle-closure. While open-angle glaucoma develops slowly and may not show symptoms or signs for several years, acute angle-closure can develop in a matter of hours with significant symptoms. Secondary Glaucoma can be due to trauma, steroid use, pseudoexfoliation, neovascular, pigment dispersion syndrome, ICE syndrome.
Risk factors for glaucoma include family history, steroid use, trauma, high eye pressure, short-sighted/ long-sighted vision, African/Asian descent, diabetes, migraines, and high or low blood pressures.
Acute angle-closure glaucoma often presents with severe headache and eye pain, nausea, blurred vision, often by seeing halos around lights and eye redness. Since it can’t be reversed once it’s taken effect, it’s important to go to an emergency room or an ophthalmologist as soon as you recognise the signs, so the progression can be reduced or stopped and your vision can be preserved.
Australians over the age of 50 years or older should have an eye examination every 2 years, and if there is a family history of glaucoma or Asian/African descent eyes should be checked every 2 years from the age of 40. However, if there is family history of advanced glaucoma, regular eye checks are recommended commencing 5-10 years earlier than the age of onset of the affected relative.
Diabetic retinopathy (DR) is a common complication of diabetes. It occurs when too much sugar builds up in your blood and causes changes in tiny blood vessels which feed the retina leading to reduced blood flow, this causes your eye to grow new and ineffective blood vessels which can leak and burst. Even though treatment is effective and readily available to most people, diabetic retinopathy remains one of Australia’s most common causes of vision loss in the working age group.
Diabetic retinopathy can affect people suffering from any type of diabetes, including Type 2 and Type 1 diabetes. It often doesn’t have symptoms at first, which is why it’s important to get regular eye exams if you’re diagnosed with diabetes. Eye exams can catch the disease in its early stages, which allows for treatment which can prevent further damage and subsequent vision loss.
If you suffer from diabetes, the best way to prevent diabetic retinopathy is by maintaining control of your condition. You can do this by eating a healthy diabetic diet, exercising regularly, and taking any medications prescribed by your doctor.
Cataracts cause the natural lens of the eye to become cloudy, reducing your ability to see. This often happens over a long period of time due to aging or disease, but can also happen as a result of eye trauma. Many sufferers of cataracts say that cataracts make your vision appear as if you’re looking through a foggy or dirty window.
Most cataracts develop slowly and don’t affect your vision in their early stages, and many people don’t notice them until they’ve caused noticeable vision obstruction. Luckily, most cataracts can be easily corrected through cataract surgery, which replaces your eye’s clouded lens with a clear, artificial one. This lens can be made to fit your own prescription, so undergoing cataract surgery may eliminate your dependence on glasses.
Like with most eye conditions, your risk of developing cataracts early can be reduced by living a healthy lifestyle, not smoking, adopting a healthy diet, and wearing protective eyewear in the sun.
Traumatic eye injuries occur when they eye is damaged by external means, such as penetration, blunt force trauma, chemical burns, or radiation. It’s the leading cause of visual impairment and blindness in young people, and often leads to lifelong vision impairment that can’t be repaired. If you suffer from eye trauma, it’s important to see an eye surgeon immediately to increase your chance of recovery and prevent further loss of vision.
Most eye trauma occurs in people who don’t wear protective eyewear when doing a dangerous task, or who don’t wear the right eyewear for the job. Many more cases are caused by playing high-contact sports (such as football or rugby), or by accident (such as car crashes or unexpected falls)
Luckily, nearly all cases of eye trauma in Australia are preventable. You can reduce your risk of eye trauma by wearing the appropriate protective eyewear for your task, and by taking care when doing activities which involve working with flying particles or chemicals, engaging in high contact activities (such as sports), or exposing yourself to harmful energy (such as sunlight, or high doses of X-rays or microwave energy).
If you notice that your vision is decreasing, it’s important to seek qualified medical help as soon as possible to prevent lasting damage. Your vision is one of your most important assets, and there’s no reason to let it disappear over a preventable or treatable cause.