The Connection Between Health and Vision Impairment

According to VisionServe Alliance’s Big Data Project, people who live with vision impairment have higher rates of diabetes, stroke, hypertension and heart disease. They are twice as likely to fall as people without vision loss, report poorer quality of life and higher rates of depression. How is it that eye disease can affect the rest of a person’s health so comprehensively and what can be done to lessen this outcome?

While the link between falls and vision impairment seems self-evident, it may not be as simple as falling due to an inability to see where one is walking. If people with vision impairment are also more likely to be unhealthy, as the data suggests, perhaps they also are unable to recover from near-falls as easily as a healthy person with strong muscles and good balance would.

‘Due to his goal of self-preservation, he has lost his connection with the world and his physical and mental health are compromised.’

We know that diabetes, stroke, hypertension, and heart disease are all conditions the medical community recommends be addressed through lifestyle choices of a healthy diet and regular exercise. So, why does there seem to be a relationship between poor physical health and vision loss?

The answers may be found in the impact vision loss can have on all aspects of life. Here is a scenario demonstrating what can happen:

Mr. Sterk (not his real name), a 62-year-old teacher, has diabetic retinopathy. At first, he struggled to read his students’ work, clearly see their faces, and read print on his computer screen. After falling on the stairs several times, he became convinced he would soon face total blindness. He decided he had no choice but to retire. Once retired, Sterk missed the social interaction with his colleagues. He no longer felt safe driving and stayed home.

Preparing food also was a struggle. He tried to order groceries online but clicked on several wrong items. He started walking to the grocery store but could not see the pedestrian signals clearly and felt reluctant to go out. Sterk found himself either ordering in or cooking convenience foods that he knew were bad for his diabetes, but after several accidents with his chef’s knife and a few meals of undercooked chicken, he was uncertain what else to do. With his weight increasing, his diabetes out of control, and his vision worsening, he assumes his next stop will be a nursing home.

We can imagine how Sterk is feeling. His decisions to leave work and stay home are natural responses to prioritizing keeping himself physically safe—as much as they also mean avoiding social and professional embarrassment when he finds he can’t cope. But, due to his goal of self-preservation, he has lost his connection with the world and his physical and mental health are compromised.

There is hope. The first step is learning about vision rehabilitation services. Providing that knowledge is how one can make a difference in the life of an older person with vision loss. After a vision impairment diagnosis, connection to these specialized services can rebuild confidence and control over daily life at home and in the workplace.

Intervention via vision rehabilitation services can change lives of people like Sterk by teaching them how to:

  • Move around safely and confidently, get out for errands and social events and use available public transportation options.
  • Use kitchen knives, cook on the stove, and independently maintain a chosen diet.
  • Activate accessibility settings and software on computers and smartphones to manage online affairs and connect virtually with the world, personally and professionally.
  • Apply self-advocacy and new practical skills to achieve a fulfilling life.

By increasing independence, quality of life, safety, and by extension, physical and mental health, the specialized instruction provided by vision rehabilitation professionals will help lead to a healthy, happier future.

Services can help individuals with vision impairment to maintain physical strength through building confidence about safe movement and strategies for maintaining a healthy diet. These lifestyle changes can lessen the risk of falls, and the impact of stroke, heart disease and diabetes. Mental health can be improved by strengthening connections to people and participating in activities that bring joy. Participation in vision rehabilitation services is an important key to maintaining health and wellness for individuals with vision impairment.

After a diagnosis of vision loss, it may be true that medically nothing more can be done to restore vision, but many actions are available to clients, customers and others who have blindness or vision loss to embrace a new path to long-term wellness.

For more information on The Reality of Aging and Vision Loss in America, Vision Rehabilitation Can Complete the Continuum of Care, Vision Rehabilitation—Help and Hope, Vision Rehabilitation Helps Older Adults Thrive, Shining a Light on Inclusion: Empowering People with Vision Impairment, and Vision Rehabilitation Professionals Make the Difference read the first six articles in this series by VisionServe Alliance.

Polly Abbott, CVRT, OMS, has provided vision rehabilitation services for more than 20 years and is an older blind specialist at the Older Individuals who are Blind Technical Assistance Center for Mississippi State University's National Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Diego Cervo