If you’re one of the 40 percent of drivers over 40 who are uncomfortable driving at night, maybe it’s time you understood the causes of your worsening vision.
Night driving at can be particularly hazardous as we age, the result of shrinking pupils that don’t dilate in the dark as much as they once did, thereby reducing the amount of light entering the eyes. The cornea and lens also become less clear, causing light to scatter inside the eye and increasing glare, which make it harder to read reflective road signs and other critical markings.
These changes occur gradually, so many of us may not notice them until they affect our vision. We spoke with Dr. Stuart Richer, a Chicago optometrist, to shed more light on the subject.
Q: Are women over 40 more at risk for developing certain eye diseases and conditions than men?
A: Yes. Estrogen levels are higher before menopause, which helps protect against calcium depositing in the small blood vessels of the eyes. Women also lose calcium through childbirth, which is a good thing. However, with less estrogen production, more calcium deposits can contribute to arteriosclerosis [build-up of fatty plaques, cholesterol and other substances in the arteries]. This can, in turn, trigger macular degeneration, studies show. Macular degeneration is a disease that causes blurred vision and loss of the central vision.
Q: Many people over 40 avoid driving at night because they don’t feel safe. How does this relate to their eye health?
A: The risk of injury or fatality associated with motor vehicle accidents has been determined to increase with age, as a result of age-related declines in vision, motor and cognitive functioning. Drivers with cataracts suffer from increased glare disability (GD) and loss of contrast sensitivity (CS), and drivers with age-related macular degeneration are vulnerable to further sensory visual impairment when driving at night.
Q: How can women tell if their eye health has deteriorated, specifically for driving at night driving, aside from routine eye exams?
A: Women should pay attention to how much they are bothered by windshield glare, neon headlamps and driving in adverse weather conditions such as fog, rain and evening driving.
Q: Are there ways to improve eye health, especially for driving at night?
A: Absolutely. Yellow IOLs [intraocular cataract lenses, which are artificial lenses that replace the natural lenses through cataract surgery], as well as prescription, aberration-limiting eye drops address visual issues of night driving. Specifically, carotenoids [important pigments that support eye health] lessen disabling glare, improve glare recovery, improve contrast sensitivity, and improve reaction time. In the long run, carotenoids also help protect against the development of age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.
Q: Can you explain, in layman’s terms what zeaxanthin and lutein can do for our eyes?
A: The dietary carotenoids zeaxanthin and lutein protect the most important retinal real estate of the eye–-the macula–which allows us to see detail. It is therefore critical to maintain the quality and health of this area of retinal tissue in a modern society that depends upon using computer screens and driving automobiles, safely.
Q: What could happen if women ignore the signs of deteriorating eye health?
A: I think that woman who ignore subtle changes in their visual functioning, at any age, are more likely to suffer the consequences of degenerative ocular disease as they age. A better functioning retina is typically a healthier retina. I like to say that it is easier to fix the roof on the house while the sun is shining, rather than during a snowstorm.
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