Eye health tips for older people

Because our eyesight changes as we get older, almost all of us will need to wear glasses or contact lenses by the time we’re 65.

If you have regular eye tests, wear the right lenses and look after your eyes, there’s a better chance your sight will remain clear.

Have regular eye tests

An eye test is not just good for checking whether your glasses are up to date. It’s also a vital check on the health of your eyes. An eye test can pick up eye diseases, such as glaucoma and cataracts, as well as general health problems, including diabetes and high blood pressure.

The good news is that if you’re 60 or over, you can have a free NHS eye test every two years. You can have a free test every year if you’re 70 or over.

However, a 2011 survey from Age UK showed that nearly 2 million people over 60 did not take advantage of free eye tests in the previous two years.

Helena Herklots, services director at Age UK, said: "It’s worrying that such a high number of older people have not had a sight test recently. Going for regular sight tests and wearing the right glasses will not only improve balance, co-ordination and mobility but will help to maintain general eye health."

If you can’t leave your home because of illness or disability, you can have an NHS eye test at home. Contact your usual optician to find out if they can visit you at home. Otherwise, NHS England will have a list of opticians in your area that do home visits. Contact NHS England on 0300 311 22 3 or email england.contactus@nhs.net 0845.

Find out more about eye tests.

Wear the right lenses

An eye test will establish whether you need a different prescription for your glasses or contact lenses.

It’s important to wear the correct prescription lenses. This will improve your quality of life and reduce the risk of accidents such as falls.

According to Age UK's research, poor vision was a factor in 270,000 falls in people over the age of 60 in the previous two years.

You may be entitled to help with the cost of NHS glasses or contact lenses, so ask your optician about this.

Find a local optician.

Read more about entitlement to free NHS eye tests or optical vouchers.

How to keep your eyes healthy

As well as having regular eye tests and wearing the correct glasses, you can do several things to keep your eyes as healthy as possible:

  • Eat well. Eating a healthy, balanced diet is important for your eyes. Eating plenty of vegetables and fruit will benefit your overall health and may help protect against some conditions such as cataracts and age-related macular degeneration (AMD, see below). Read tips on how to have a healthy, balanced diet.
  • Wear sunglasses. Strong sunlight can damage your eyes and may increase your risk of cataracts. Wear sunglasses or contact lenses with a built-in UV filter to protect your eyes from harmful rays. Read more about protecting your eyes (and skin) from the sun.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking can increase your chances of developing conditions such as cataracts and AMD. Find out how the NHS can help you stop smoking.
  • Stay a healthy weight. Being overweight increases your risk of diabetes, which can lead to sight loss. Check if you're a healthy weight.
  • Use good lighting. To see well, your eyes need three times as much light when you're 60 as they did when you were 20. Increase the daylight in your home by keeping windows clean and curtains pulled back. Make sure you have good electric lighting too, especially at the top and bottom of stairs so you can see the steps clearly. For reading or close work, use a direct light from a flexible table lamp, positioned so the light is not reflected by the page and causing glare. 
  • Exercise. Good circulation and oxygen intake are important for our eye health. Both of these are stimulated by regular exercise. Read more about how much exercise you should do.
  • Sleep well. As you sleep, your eyes are continuously lubricated and irritants, such as dust or smoke, that may have accumulated during the day are cleared out. Here are 10 tips to beat insomnia.

Eye problems as you get older

As you get older, you become more likely to get certain eye problems:

  • Difficulty reading. Eye muscles start to weaken from the age of 45. It's a natural ageing process of the eye that happens to us all. By the time you're 60, you'll probably need separate reading glasses or an addition to your prescription lenses (bifocals or varifocals). 
  • Floaters. These tiny specks or spots that float across your vision are normally harmless. If they persist, see an optician as they may be a sign of an underlying health condition.
  • Cataracts. Easily detected in an eye test, this gradual clouding of the eye's lens is extremely common in over-60s. A simple operation can restore sight.
  • Glaucoma. This is related to an increase in pressure in the eye that leads to damage of the optic nerve, which connects the eye to the brain. Left untreated, glaucoma leads to tunnel vision and, ultimately, blindness. However, if it's detected early enough, these complications can usually be avoided with eye drops. 
  • Macular degeneration. This is a disease of the retina caused by ageing. The retina is the nerve tissue lining the back of your eye. There are two types of macular degeneration. The first type, called dry macular degeneration, gets worse very slowly. The other type gets worse very quickly. This needs to be seen as an emergency in a hospital eye unit for prompt treatment.

Page last reviewed: 10/08/2013

Next review due: 10/08/2015

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