As we age the lens of our eyes gradually yellow and our pupils narrow. As this happens, less and less sunlight can penetrate the lens to reach the key areas of the eye. Studies are now showing that this normal aging process is disruptive to our circadian rhythm and can contribute to various health problems (as reported in the NY Times on Feb. 20, 2012).
Simply put, our circadian rhythm is our body’s natural clock. Through complex systems it controls the release of many hormones into our body. The primary hormone controlled by our circadian rhythm is melatonin. On the extreme end, decreased melatonin secretion has been linked to higher incidences of diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart diseases. But the less severe side effects affect most of us—decreased melatonin can cause us to be more tired, less alert, and be more prone to depression.
New studies are showing that the aging eye has a direct effect on our melatonin levels. Studies in Europe have shown that the same amount of light that causes a person in their 20’s to feel energized, have better memory retention, and to have a better mood has no effect on older individuals. Studies in Sweden have shown that after cataract surgery (which removes the clouded lenses and allows more light to penetrate the eye) patients have significantly decreased insomnia and daytime sleepiness. The patients’ reaction times also greatly improve after surgery.
How Can We Combat the Effects of Our Aging Eyes?
We can’t stop aging. So what can we do to reduce the effects of our aging eyes and better regulate our circadian rhythms as we age? We must get more sunshine as we age. Get outside for a walk or just relax on the porch in the sun. Open the blinds and have skylights installed for the times when you are in the house. If you can’t get outside, use bright lights inside. Keep your lights bright during the day and dimmer at night to mimic the sun.
How Can We Keep Our Eyes Healthy?
We might not be able to completely stop the aging process, but what can we do to keep our eyes healthy as long as possible?
Eat a Balanced Diet: Vitamins A, C, E, and zinc are proven to keep eyes health and reduce the risk of certain eye conditions. Make sure you are eating a balanced diet so that you are getting all of your necessary vitamins.
Stop Smoking: Smoking increases the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration.
Wear Sunglass: While it is important to getting plenty of light to help balance your circadian rhythms, bright sunlight can be harmful to your eyes. During the brightest parts of the day and when around reflective sources like water and snow, make sure you wear sunglasses to protect your eyes.
Yearly Eye Exams: Over the age of 60 you should get yearly eye exams even if your vision is OK. Early detection is key to keeping your eyes health. Cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration is much more common in people over 60.
Treat Cataracts Immediately: Many people wait for years after the initial diagnosis to have cataract surgery. Don’t wait too long. Discuss surgery with your ophthalmologist. Cataract surgery has a very low complication rate.
Manage Your Diabetes: High blood sugar can damage the blood vessels behind your retina. Keep your blood sugar in check to prevent damage.