Low Vision: What is it?

While February is Low Vision Awareness month, many are still unfamiliar with this debilitating condition. However, it's more prevalent than you may think; according to the National Eye Institute, 4.2 million Americans are visually impaired. By 2030, that figure is projected to balloon up to 7 million.

What is low vision?

Low vision is a term that refers to the visual impairment than can arise from a number of different conditions such as cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration. While it might be easy to confuse "low vision" with "poor vision", the identifying element of low vision is its inability to be remedied with glasses, contacts, or pharmaceuticals.

Low vision can manifest as as blurred vision, tunnel vision, blind spots, or legal blindness. Because of its prevalence and difficulty in treating, it impacts the quality of life for millions of Americans.

What causes low vision?

Low vision can be caused by a number of conditions, including:

1. Diabetic Retinopathy: Diabetic retinopathy is a complication directly related to high blood sugar. By damaging the blood vessels, his condition can lead to damage-and even detachment-of the retina.

2. Cataracts: If one lives long enough, they will inevitably develop cataracts, which manifest as a clouding of the lens of the eye. Fortunately, it is one of the most treatable causes of low vision.

3. Glaucoma: With glaucoma, portions of vision are lost over time, usually with no warning signs or symptoms prior to vision deterioration. For many, a decrease in peripheral vision is the first sign of glaucoma.

4. Age-related Macular Degeneration: AMD is the leading cause of vision loss among Americans over 65, accounting for nearly half of all low vision cases. It is caused when the part of the eye responsible for sharp, straight-on vision – the macula – breaks down. The result is a loss of central vision.

How can it impact my quality of life?

Low vision can impact your quality of life in a number of ways, especially for older individuals:

1. Injuries: Because vision is such an essential element of maintaining balance, a lack of visual acuity can result in a lack of contrast sensitivity and depth perception. This often results in one being more suspectible to falls and accidents.

2. Independence: Low vision can hamper one's ability to do the things we all tend to take for granted, such as being able to read webpages, sew or knit, or participate in other activities that require visual acuity. This loss of independence can lead to early retirement, frustration, and the inability to enjoy past times such as art galleries.

3. Mental health: Because low vision can rob a person of their independence and freedom, it directly increases the risk of depression and social isolation. Recent research has found that nearly 25 percent of people with bilateral AMD (in both eyes) developed clinical depression. Other studies have shown that nearly 10 percent of elderly individuals with severe vision impairment have major depressive disorder likely due to the loss of functional abilities and a lower quality of life.

What can I do about it?

The best way to reduce the impact of low vision is early detection. For older individuals, regular eye exams are critical in catching complications early. Tools and devices also exist to help those with low vision maintain or regain their independence. Additionally, eye care professionals have developed ways to rehabilitate low vision, helping those with this condition maintain their independence and ability to perform everyday tasks.