Regular eye exams are essential for good health, but especially important for senior citizens because age is a risk factor for several eye diseases. One in three Americans by the age of 65 will have a vision-impairing eye disease, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

We recommend an eye exam every year or two for people over the age of 65, and every two to four years for people between the ages of 40 and 65. The earlier we can discover most eye conditions and begin treatment, the better chance we have to preserve good vision.

Other risk factors include diabetes, family history, sun exposure, smoking, obesity, high blood pressure and previous eye injury or disease. Here is a review of three of the most common eye diseases among senior citizens.

Cataracts - A cataract is a clouding of the eye's lens that leads to blurry vision. Many people compare seeing with cataracts to looking through a dirty windshield. Other symptoms may include poor night vision, sensitivity to light and glare, seeing halos around light, frequent changes in contact lens or eyeglass prescription, and the need for brighter light to read.

By the age of 75, 70 percent of Americans have cataracts. A change in your eyeglass prescription may be all you need for a while. But if your vision becomes very blurry, you many want to consider surgery to replace the natural lens with a clear implant. Surgery is our only treatment option and is successful 95 percent of the time.

Glaucoma - Glaucoma is characterized by unusually high pressure within the eyeball that can lead to damage of the optic nerve and loss of vision. Symptoms can include gradual loss of peripheral vision; tunnel vision; pain; sudden, severe blurring; redness in the eye;  and nausea or vomiting. Regular screenings are especially important because glaucoma often progresses without warning signs.

Among the risk factors are elevated internal eye pressures, age, family history, nearsightedness and other eye conditions or medical conditions. Although there is no cure for glaucoma, treatments such as eye drops, oral medications and even surgery can reduce the pressure inside the eye to minimize nerve damage and limit vision loss. If you have a family history of glaucoma, we recommend an annual exam.

Age-related macular degeneration - This is a deterioration of a small part of the retina that is responsible for your central "straight ahead" vision and the ability to clearly see fine detail. Symptoms include blurriness, distortion in the central vision and difficulty reading fine print or discerning other details. Age and family history appear to be the most important risk factors. Other risk factors include race (white), gender (female), smoking, obesity, high blood pressure and poor diet.

There are two types: dry and wet. The dry form is the most common and caused by aging and thinning of the macular tissue. The wet form is more severe and affects about 10 percent of patients. It is caused by abnormal blood vessels leaking fluid that interferes with central vision. Regular eye exams can help detect problems before patients begin to experience symptoms.

Several treatments of wet macular degeneration can reduce the risk of severe vision loss. While there is no proven treatment for dry macular degeneration, it rarely results in total vision loss. Studies have shown that antioxidant vitamins and zinc can reduce the impact or slow the progression of dry macular degenerations.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology has one of the best web sites about eye health at www.geteyesmart.org.

By: Dr.John Stechschulte, an ophthalmologist with Arena Eye Surgeons and an active member of the OhioHealth Grady Memorial Hospital medical staff