Vision Loss for Elderly People Increases Mortality Risk, Depression

It’s well known among the public that older people sometimes have a hard time seeing and completing daily activities, including everything from personal hygiene to driving and even walking.

Now, a series of studies based on the elderly population of a small rural town in Maryland is shedding new light on how visual acuity can affect older people, and even on how vision loss can increase their chances of dying by 16 percent. It can also lead to serious depression.

The Salisbury Eye Evaluation (SEE) project was the starting point for all the studies. It looked at people in their retirement years in Salisbury, Maryland. Separate studies looked at slightly different populations, and each study had specific timelines.

In the study that found a 16 percent increase in the likelihood of dying among people who couldn’t see well, the research participants were evaluated over an 8-year period. A new study published just last year found that this mortality rate increase was primarily due to a loss in independent living abilities. Vision loss was defined as a decrease in the ability to read one line or more on an eye chart.

At ManagementPlus, we found it interesting that the daily activities that predicted a higher risk of dying weren’t necessary activities like dressing and eating, but instrumental ones such as telephone use, shopping and cooking. This information was reported in a press release from Purdue University, which participated in the study.

Dying wasn’t the only negative consequence from lower visual acuity uncovered by the SEE.

According to another study, “visual impairment was associated with reports of not attending social or religious activities, which are important markers for social isolation in this community.” It also found that a loss in visual acuity is a major risk factor for depression.

Vision can also affect driving, according to the SEE studies, but not in all the ways you might expect. This study looked at the vision-related reasons for older people’s decisions to stop driving. While “slow visual scanning and psychomotor speed, poor visuo-constructional skills and reduced sensitivity were predictors” of driving cessation, “visual field loss and visual attention were not associated.” For all the other drivers on the road, that’s a bit concerning.

These studies show that particularly for older people, the ability to see well makes a big difference. We encourage all of our optometric and ophthalmologic clients to put renewed focus into testing and treating elderly people. It’s more than just quality of life – it’s life itself.

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