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Neighbors of Kane County

Aging Americans need eyecare most but do they have benefits?

Jun 22, 2015 04:01AM ● By Family Features
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(Family Features) Julie Beall might be a cancer patient, but she’s truly defined by any number of other titles. She’s a wife and mother, a registered nurse, a real estate professional, an MBA graduate, a small business owner and a public speaker. She owns a glass art studio. She regularly volunteers at a medical clinic in Africa.

The 50-something is nowhere near retired, although she is nearing retirement age. And she has a message for people of her generation and older.

Get annual eye exams. Your life might depend on it.

John Lahr, OD, EyeMed Medical Director and a fellow baby boomer concurs.

“The single most important thing anyone 50 years or older can do for their vision and eye health is to book an annual eye exam,” he said. “Once you pass the 50-year mark, your risk for several serious eye diseases increases and the odds of you requiring vision correction also climbs. What’s more, your optometrist may see signs of a serious physical health condition you never associated with an eye exam.”

Nobody knows better than Beall. Two years ago she went for a routine eye exam near her home outside Dayton, Ohio, not knowing that her life was about to change forever.

“I didn’t really suspect anything was wrong,” Beall said. “Maybe I was getting a little older. I thought I might need reading glasses; maybe my eyes were getting a little tired.”

Beall’s optometrist noticed an area off the side of the retina that looked unusual. After dilating her eyes, he noted what he thought was a detaching retina. Considering it an ocular emergency, her optometrist referred her to an ophthalmologist who specialized in retinal diseases. She saw that doctor later the same day and was told she had choroidal melanoma, a potentially fatal form of cancer. Doctors treated Julie with radioactive plaque therapy.

According to Dr. Lahr, Beall’s story of uncovering a serious health concern at the optometrist is not unusual. In addition to preserving eyesight, annual exams can be a window to serious medical conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and high cholesterol.

“The average optometrist sees 2,500 to 3,000 patients annually. And it’s not uncommon for there to be hundreds of times each year you have someone in the optometrist’s chair who hasn’t had a physical in a while. You take a look at the back of their eye and you see early signs of something potentially serious,” said Dr. Lahr. “More often, eye doctors recognize symptoms of serious eye disease when it’s early enough to correct the condition or manage long-term vision issues.”

Ironically, for many aging Americans, an annual eye exam becomes harder to access at a time in life when they most need to see an eye doctor regularly. According to The Vision Council, less than half of Americans age 65 or older have vision benefits. Studies show that this aging population will double to 71.5 million by 2030. Regular adult eye health and vision care is not provided through original Medicare or the Affordable Care Act. Plus, an increasing number of Americans in their 50s and early 60s are without access to employer-sponsored health benefits due to self-employment or circumstances.

This gap sparked an idea from EyeMed, and it began working on an insurance product for AARP members.

“There is a certain segment of the target population that might just say, ‘Why should I get an eye exam every year if I don’t have a vision benefit to help with the costs?’” said Dr. Lahr. “I even talk to people who have the means to cover vision care costs out-of-pocket and are interested in an individual vision benefit.”

AARP MyVision Care from EyeMed, the first vision plan with features to meet the specific vision needs of senior consumers, launched in February in California, Illinois, Ohio and New Jersey.
Today, Julie Beall has added a new role to her ever-expanding list of titles: eye exam advocate.

“If I could just get everybody in the country to get an eye exam,” she said recently. “Do it.”

“It may save your life.”

Isn’t vision loss just part of getting older?

Worsening vision is an inevitable part of aging, but according to, lifestyle and vision care impact the rate and degree of deterioration.

  • If your diet includes zinc, lutein and zeaxanthin, vitamin C, vitamin E and Omega-3 fatty acids you may delay cataracts and control the progress of age-related macular degeneration.
  • If you smoke, stop. The odds of developing cataracts and macular degeneration increase 400% if you’re a smoker.
  • Presbyopia, a natural part of the aging process, makes it difficult for you to focus on close objects. Optometrists can prescribe contact lenses, reading glasses, bifocals or even progressive lenses (no-line multifocals). Lens technology allows you to wear multifocal glasses without the traditional look of multifocals.
  • Advancements in lens technology can correct and enhance your vision in ways unimaginable a decade ago. Cataracts can be removed efficiently with accurate focus outcomes. Glaucoma, in its early stages, can be treated with eyedrops and lasers. Lasik treatment continues to evolve.

Ask the doctor

EyeMed Medical Director John Lahr, OD, answers some questions about eye exams for aging patients:

Q: When optometrists look into the eye, what are they looking for?
A: We see important eye structures and signs of glaucoma or cataracts or other diseases. But what’s most important is the ability to see blood vessels. The blood vessels tell us important early-identification signs for diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol — three of the most costly diseases we face today.

Q: Aren’t those things that should be picked up by primary care physicians?
A: Unfortunately, some people don’t engage in general healthcare. They might only go to a doctor for specific issues. So they kind of get lost in the system. Is their medication up to date? Are they doing what they’re supposed to do to be healthier? Are they monitored? Because many of these people come in annually to get their eyeglass or contact lens prescription updated, we have opportunities to diagnose them when they might not be otherwise.

Q: What advances in technology have changed vision care for older patients?
A: Just look at cataracts. Cataract surgery has gotten very sophisticated. And the outcomes have been fantastic. You’re taking out a cloudy lens and putting in an artificial lens. And with that lens, you can literally pick your prescription. It’s amazing what can be done with that procedure.

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Photos courtesy of Getty Images

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