“When people have vision loss, they change the way they live their lives. They decrease their physical activity and they decrease their social activity, both of which are so important for maintaining a healthy brain,” Dr. Swenor said. “It puts them on a fast tack to cognitive decline.”
But identifying and correcting vision loss early on can help, Dr. Zheng said. She suggested regular eye checkups — at least once every two years, and more often if you have diabetes, glaucoma or other conditions that may damage vision. “Make sure you can see well through your glasses,” she urged.
When glasses alone aren’t enough
There are “vision impairments that glasses won’t fix,” Dr. Swenor said, like age-related macular degeneration and glaucoma. Retinal disease began to compromise Dr. Swenor’s vision in her mid-20s. Those with problems like hers can benefit from something called low vision rehabilitation, a sort of physical therapy for the eyes that helps visually impaired people adapt to common situations and help them function better in society.
Dr. Swenor, for instance, can see objects in a high-contrast situation, like a black cat against a white fence, but has trouble seeing the difference between similar colors. She can’t pour white milk into a white mug without spilling it, for example. Her solution: Use a dark-colored mug. Finding such accommodations is an ongoing task, but it enables her to continue to function well professionally and socially.
Society, too, needs to help people with visual impairment function safely outside the home. Most things in hospitals are white, for example, which creates safety hazards for people with diminished contrast sensitivity. As a driver of 50 years, I’ve noticed that road barriers that used to be the same color as the road surface are now more often rendered in high contrast colors like orange or yellow, which undoubtedly reduces crashes even for people who can see perfectly.
“We need to create a more inclusive society that accommodates people with vision impairment,” Dr. Swenor said.
Home improvements may foster brain health
People who have trouble with depth perception can also incorporate helpful design features into the home. Placing colored strips on stair risers, varying textures of furniture and color-coding objects can all improve the ability to navigate safely. People who can no longer read books may also listen to audiobooks, podcasts or music instead, Dr. Swenor said.