Dry Eyes and Aging: What You Need to Know

Aging brings on natural changes that can significantly weaken your eyes. Dry eyes are one of the most common problems older men and women face. With age, our eyes become more sensitive to things like wind and light because the body’s mucous membranes produce fewer secretions.

Simple changes in our diets, medications, and environments can help soothe the pain and discomfort. If dry eye is left untreated, the cornea can develop ulcers and other severe eye problems.

What Are the Causes of Dry Eyes as We Age?

As we age, our body produces fewer tears than when we were younger due to the decrease in secretions from by our mucous membranes. Dry eyes are a very common complaint among older people. Here are a few of the things that cause dry eyes, especially as we age.

  • Watery Eyes: While dry eyes cause a reactionary increase in tear secretion and maybe even a corresponding “watery eyes,” this increase in tear flow actually can make the dry eye worse. The watery tears that are formed are not lubricating. These tears may feel more like stinging or burning.
  • Menopause: Hot flashes, insomnia, vaginal dryness, mood swings, fatigue, and headaches are all associated with menopause. More than 60 percent of women who experience these symptoms also experience dry eyes. Dry eyes during this stage in life can sometimes be a signal that something else is wrong inside, like Sjogren’s syndrome.
  • Decreased Tear Production: As we age, our eyes naturally slow down their tear production. Tears are an important defense for the eyes. Tears not only wash dust away from our eyes, but also soothe them, provide oxygen and nutrients to the cornea, and help defend against eye infections by washing away microorganisms that can form communities in our eyes.
  • Medications: Dry eyes can be caused by some high blood pressure medications, antidepressants, heart medications, antihistamines, decongestants, muscle relaxants, sleeping pills, and pain relievers. Drugs for Parkinson’s disease and gastric ulcers will also make your dry eye symptoms worse, as will hormone therapy, particularly estrogen therapy.
  • Certain foods: Chocolate, colas, coffee, and tea all contain caffeine, which robs your body of moisture. Try avoiding or limiting these foods and drinks.
  • Computer use: Unfortunately as we age and retire, many of us find fewer things to do outside the home. Sitting in front of the computer for extended periods, whether for work or leisure, can significantly dry your eyes out.

Preventing Dry Eyes as We Age — Is It Possible? 

There are a few things you can do to prevent severe symptoms of dry eye, regardless of your age. Here are a few examples:

  • Drink Water: Water consumption is the best way to keep your body hydrated, including your skin and eyes especially if you live in dry, hot, or cold locations. And it’s usually free of charge.
  • Humidifiers: Running a humidifier in your home can increase the amount of moisture in the air, which is especially important if you live in the desert, or in a dry location.
  • Location: We understand that many older adults live in residences where they have been for many years. But the environment you live in can play a crucial role in dealing with dry eyes. If possible, try moving to a location that is not dry, dusty, windy, or extremely hot or cold. See our list of top dry eye cities.
  • Natural Supplements: Natural supplements such as flaxseed oil and Omega-3 are a great way to decrease your dry eye symptoms. Fatty acids are proven to do this. By eating more cold-water fish like salmon, herring, cod, and sardines, you can get the dosage of Omega-3 fatty acids you need. Staying away from foods and drinks that contain caffeine can also reduce your dry eye symptoms, as caffeine is known to dehydrate.

Treatment for Your Aging Dry Eyes

There are certain medications, surgical and non-surgical procedures that you and your doctor can discuss if you are dealing with Dry Eye Syndrome. Here are a few examples:

  • Warm Moist Compresses: Not only is this relaxing, performed at least twice daily this will promote a healthier tear flow and more lubricating tear production.
  • OTC Lubrication: Also known as artificial tears, these work to supplement the body’s normal tear production. While there are many good brands on the market to choose from, ideally the lubricating drop uses a lipid as its base and is available in the preservative-free single dose containers that are used one time, then discarded in the trash.
  • Restasis: Restasis is the first prescription drug of its kind, and it won FDA approval in 2002. It is generally recommended to people who get no relief from artificial tear eye drops. This treatment improves the body’s ability to produce its own natural, healthy tears by treating the underlying cause of the condition—inflammation.
  • Silicone Plugs: This is a non-surgical procedure that involves plugging the upper and lower lids where tears drain into your nose. Tiny bits of silicone are placed in these openings to keep your tears in your eyes and keep your eyes from drying out. These plugs can be temporary or permanent, depending on the severity of your symptoms, and the process is painless.
  • Surgery: Surgery is usually a last resort for those who cannot take the plugs being inserted into their tear ducts. Instead, the tear ducts are surgically closed with a minor procedure.

Talking to Your Eye Doctor

Here are some questions to ask your eye doctor about aging dry eyes:

  • Which over-the-counter medications do you recommend to your patients and which ones do you not care for? Why?
  • Do you think I would benefit more from prescription-strength dry-eye medication?
  • Which vitamins and nutrients should I increase my intake of?
  • Based on the cause of my dry eyes, what treatment options do I have?
  • How much does treatment cost? Does my insurance cover any of the costs?
  • What are some of the complications of dry eye?
  • What can I do at home and at work to prevent my eyes from drying out?
  • How often do you treat dry eye syndrome in older patients?

Did you know … an estimated 5 million Americans over the age of 50 suffer from moderate to severe dry eye?

  • J. DiGirolamo, MD “The Big Book of Family Eye Care” (Basic Health Publications, Inc. 2011) 120-121
This article was last updated on 10/2015