Eyes and Vision

What is astigmatism?

DEAR DOCTOR K: At my last visit, my eye doctor told me I have astigmatism. He told me what that means, but I still don't really understand what it is. Please explain it to me.

DEAR READER: Astigmatism means that the eye's cornea has an irregular shape, which causes vision problems. Astigmatism is very common; I am among the several billion people who have it. Fortunately, it's easy to correct.

Have there been any recent advances in cataract surgery?

DEAR DOCTOR K: My husband had cataract surgery 10 years ago. Now it's my turn. Have there been any advances in the past decade that I should know about?

DEAR READER: A cataract is a clouding of the lens of the eye. It commonly causes poor vision and blindness among older adults. But cataracts can be surgically removed and replaced with artificial lenses. In fact, cataract surgery has become fairly routine. The vast majority of people who undergo this procedure have excellent outcomes.

Am I too old for LASIK surgery?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I would like to have LASIK surgery to treat my nearsightedness. I'm 54 -- is that too old to have this surgery?

DEAR READER: LASIK (laser-assisted in-situ keratomileusis) can correct common eye problems: nearsightedness (myopia), farsightedness (hyperopia) and astigmatism. It can eliminate your need for glasses or contact lenses.

What is retinal vessel occlusion?

DEAR DOCTOR K: A friend recently lost vision in his right eye because of something called "retinal vessel occlusion." What is that? Can it be prevented?

DEAR READER: The retina is the light-sensitive layer at the back of the eye that receives light and then sends a signal to the brain -- resulting in vision. Most of the blood circulation to the retina comes through one artery and one vein. If either blood vessel or one of their smaller branches is blocked, this is called an occlusion.

How can I tell if my complaints are a consequence of aging or an actual problem?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Every time I complain about a new medical issue, my husband says, "You're 84. What do you expect?" How do I know if my complaints are just a consequence of aging or if there's an actual problem?

DEAR READER: I'm not 84, but I ask myself that question regularly. You don't have to be a doctor to understand that new symptoms develop as we age. But some changes aren't a normal part of the aging process. I'll discuss some common age-related health changes, as well as changes that suggest there might be a problem.

Any reason not to get inexpensive drugstore reading glasses instead of pricier versions?

DEAR DOCTOR K: My vision has been getting worse, and I definitely need reading glasses. Is there any reason not to get the inexpensive ones sold at the drugstore?

DEAR READER: If you're over 40, reading glasses can be a necessity. Many people end up buying several pairs at the drugstore. They are inexpensive and available in a wide variety of styles. (Not to mention that reading glasses tend to be easily misplaced.)

How does diabetes affect vision?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I was recently diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. Can you explain how diabetes affects vision?

DEAR READER: Both of the common types of diabetes, Type 1 (which usually begins in childhood) and Type 2 (which usually begins in adulthood), can affect vision in several ways. After 20 years of having Type 2 diabetes, most people have eye problems. But the risk can be reduced, as I'll explain.

Can I do anything to reduce the risk of glaucoma?

DEAR DOCTOR K: My mother has open-angle glaucoma. This increases my risk for glaucoma. Can I do anything to reduce that risk?

DEAR READER: You're right to think that your risk is increased. Because your mother has the condition, your chance of getting it is at least double that of most people you know. That doesn't mean you definitely will get glaucoma; it just means you inherit a risk, and therefore need to be particularly careful.

How can we protect our eyes from the sun?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Does spending time in the sun pose a threat to our eyes? What can we do to protect ourselves?

DEAR READER: Yes, it does. And to a large extent, the damage may already be done. I spoke to Dr. Louis Pasquale, an ophthalmologist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. He noted that spending a lot of time in the sun without sunglasses when you're young may put you at risk for developing eye problems when you're older. The damage would probably be done in your 20s and 30s.

Can you describe the complications of cataract surgery?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I am having cataract surgery in a few weeks. Can you describe the possible complications?

DEAR READER: A cataract is a clouding of the normally clear lens of the eye. As the condition worsens, you may experience blurred or dim vision, increased glare, double vision, nearsightedness and worsening night vision. Surgery is the only effective cure. During cataract surgery, the doctor removes the clouded lens and replaces it with a clear artificial lens. (I've put an illustration of the procedure at the end of this post.)