Life Changes: Our Vision and Light

Our vision changes as we age. We might start to notice that it’s harder to read in our favorite reading spot. It may seem not as well lit as it used to be. Also, we may find ourselves deliberately avoiding freeway driving at night, or even driving anywhere at night. There are reasons for this.

As we grow older less light reaches the back of the eye. Natural changes associated with aging result in reduced vision and increased glare sensitivity. Not only can this be frustrating and debilitating, but it can also lead to additional problems, such as an increased chance of falling. Also, reduced light on the retina allows the body’s circadian rhythm to get out of sync, which may disrupt the sleep cycle.

By using good lighting design, adults can see better, avoid falls, and sleep better. This is especially important for people with uncorrectable “low vision” such as macular degeneration and glaucoma.

Common Eye Conditions

Common eye conditions may compromise our vision in different ways. Here’s a brief description of how these conditions affects our lighting needs, courtesy of Dr. Patricia Bainter, a practicing Ophthalmologist and Cornea Specialist in San Diego.

  • Cataracts: As we age, the lenses on our eyes become cloudy, at which point the lenses are called cataracts. Fortunately, this is usually fixable with surgery. There are different types of cataracts with different symptoms. Some produce dimming and blur. Increasing the brightness of lighting can help. Others produce glare. With glare, vision often worsens when light shines directly toward the eyes, so positioning the source of light becomes important. This is analogous to driving with a foggy windshield; it is easier to see clearly with the sunlight coming from behind that when driving towards the sun.
  • Macular Degeneration: Macular degeneration can produce both blurred vision and difficulty adjusting to the dark. Many tasks require increased brightness of light, often in combination with magnification from devices designed by low vision specialists.
  • Glaucoma: Glaucoma can produce both blurred vision and reduced ability to detect contrast.  Most people affected by glaucoma find that vision is poor with too little light, however very bright light can also interfere with vision and reduce contrast.  Some find that having the ability to adjust the lighting with a combination of dimmers and window shades is helpful.

Lighting Tips 

Here are more ways you can bring better lighting to your home from the Lighting Research Center:

  • Provide extra light: Paint walls a light color to increase reflected light, provide flexible task lights, use under cabinet lighting, install fixtures over work areas and place table lamps near reading chairs and beds.
  • Avoid shadows: Locate a desk, table, or floor lamp to the left of a right-handed person and to the right of a left-handed person. Lighting from the side reduces glare and minimizes shadows on the task.
  • Avoid glare: To avoid glare, do not install bright fixtures near glossy surfaces, avoid using clear glass fixtures, and shield bulbs from direct view.
  • Provide orienting information: Use nightlights, glowing switches, and lights along pathways and around doors to help seniors orient themselves to avoid falling. Use contrasting colors to make objects more visible (such as a dark baseboard next to a light color floor).
  • Provide lighting that better entrains the circadian rhythm, including higher levels of light during the morning and lower levels in the evening and at night.

Learn More

For more about design for low vision, see A Clear Vision: Bathroom Remodeling and our Designed for Life Contest Winner, a low-vision kitchen makeover by Lindsay Hester, ASID, and Wardell Builders.

For more about products that can help people with low vision maximize the vision they have, visit the National Vision Council’s Low Vision website and the San Diego Center for the Blind’s 8 Stand-Out Products to Help with Vision Loss.



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