Seeing the Light at the Eye Doctor

Medically reviewed in October 2021

Have you heard of “white coat syndrome?” That’s when a person’s blood pressure is mostly normal at home, but spikes at the doctors’ office, often due to stress.  

When it comes to vision, the opposite may be true: Older adults may see just fine during an eye exam, but much worse at home.

Experts at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis tested the vision of 175 people between the ages of 55 and 90, both at home and at the school’s eye clinic. Most of the people had been diagnosed with glaucoma, but the rest had no eye problems. The study found that 30 percent of the subjects were able to read more lines on an eye chart at the clinic than at home. Both near and far vision was better, as well as contrast and glare sensitivity. The biggest difference was seen in people with glaucoma.

The results were published online in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology in November, 2013.

A “light-bulb moment”
Researchers weren’t in the dark about the reason for long: They discovered 85 percent of the adults did not turn enough lights on at home. Light levels were way below recommended levels for aging eyes, and about four times darker than the clinic, even during the daytime. One study leader says the results suggest that stronger lighting could help people see better at home, which means a lower risk of falls and better quality of life for a growing population of older adults.

Seeing Into the Future: How Eyes Age

How to keep your vision sharp
The structure of your eyes change as a normal part of aging, and that means changes to your vision, too. But there are plenty of things you can do to keep your sight sharp.

  • Turn up the lights. Increase the amount of general or ambient lighting throughout your home, and use task lights for specific jobs like reading, sewing or jigsaw puzzles. Studies show a 60-year-old needs three times the amount of light to see as well as a 20-year-old. 
  • Get tested. See an eye specialist about glasses, bifocals or contact lenses, and have your vision prescription checked every 2 to 3 years.
  • Go shopping. If reading is a challenge, try using an e-reader. A study found people with low vision read much faster on a digital device. A tablet like an iPad, Nook or Kindle lets you adjust font sizes and light settings so your next read can be crystal clear. 
  • Eat your veggies. A diet rich in vitamin C and containing carotenoids can protect the lens of the eye and reduce cataract risks. That means yes, grandma was right; carrots can help you see better. But dark leafy greens are even better, so Popeye trumps Bugs Bunny.

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