It is most common in people 60 and older, but low vision can affect anyone at any age.
“Things that cause vision impairment in kids are very different than what causes vision impairment in adults,” says Dr. Danielle Natale, a low vision specialist at The Krieger Eye Institute. “Some kids were born with a retinal hereditary disorder that causes vision impairment, such as (ocular) albinism (a group of inherited disorders that lead to little or no production of melanin and can affect eye function). In kids, you see a lot more hereditary conditions than degenerative conditions commonly seen in adults.”
Whether you’re young or elderly, you should see an eye care professional right away if you experience any changes in your eyesight. Your symptoms may well indicate vision loss or an eye disease requiring immediate treatment.
Because the medical term “low vision” is linked to multiple health conditions—age-related macular degeneration, diabetes, and glaucoma being the primary causes—it can be confusing. A common misconception, Natale says, is that low vision pertains only to near or total blindness.
“Low vision is basically any time that your vision is impaired to the point where you start having functional difficulties,” Natale said. “For instance, even if your vision isn’t super impaired, you can still have a lot of trouble reading, especially fine print. So basically, low vision is best defined as when your vision is impaired to the point where you’re starting to have functional problems that impact your activities of daily living.”
In general, anyone with reduced vision that cannot be corrected with glasses, contact lenses, medication or surgery is considered to have low vision. There are varying degrees of low vision impairment. “Low vision involves all different kinds of disease processes. Depending on the kind of disease that you have, it affects your vision very differently,” Natale says. “Glaucoma takes away peripheral vision. Macular degeneration takes away central vision. Diabetes can do a combination of things.”
Eye injuries and birth defects are some of the other causes of low vision.
Common symptoms include:
# Trouble recognizing familiar faces
# Difficulty with performing tasks at home or at work because the lights seem dimmer than normal
# Difficulty picking out and matching colors of clothing
The trouble with reading, Natale says, is the most common symptom of low vision. “That’s what people always notice first because that’s the most detailed thing that you do,” Natale says. She adds that blurred vision is also “one of the earliest signs that you have the vision impairment that needs to be addressed.”
Seek immediate treatment
Often, vision loss cannot be reversed. The sooner you see an eye doctor, the sooner vision loss or eye disease can be detected and the better your chances of preventing further vision loss.
Particularly if your condition cannot be corrected with medication or surgery, low vision care is focused on rehab therapy, Natale says.
“There are different levels of low vision care, and it all depends on how bad the impairment is,” she explains. “Some people only need to use some really strong reading glasses. Some people need magnifiers. Some people need more intensive training, as in they have to learn how to live with their vision impairment.”
Sensory substitution lessons—such as the use of auditory or tactical (touch) cues—might also be included in low vision rehabilitation treatment in some cases. The goal of low vision therapy, Natale says, is to help patients adapt to their condition and become as independent as possible with their remaining vision. “We try to figure out how to maximize their lives, make them independent and safe in their homes if they’re older, make sure they can get to work and be productive members of society if they’re younger,” she says.
Natale adds: “Just because you have vision loss doesn’t mean that you can’t be perfect, 100 percent independent and safe.”