Without New Glasses or Surgery

If you’re over 40, it’s likely that you’re not seeing as well as when you were younger—and if you’re over 60, it’s nearly certain that your eyesight has declined.

Breakthrough approach: Behavioral optometry—using eye exercises to improve vision—is an effective but usually overlooked method for stopping, slowing and even reversing the age-related decline of eyesight.

Vision Problems

If your eyesight has declined, you probably have presbyopia, a decrease in your ability to focus and see clearly at close distances, such as when you’re reading or looking at the ­computer.

You also might have diminished contrast sensitivity—less light is reaching the retina, the lining at the back of the inner eye that transforms light into electrical impulses that are sent to the visual cortex in the brain. As a result, vision is “washed out” and the contrast between objects becomes less distinct. It may be difficult to see the difference between the sidewalk curb and the street, for example. Lessened contrast sensitivity also worsens glare from headlights at night or sun reflecting off windshields during the day. The danger: Poor contrast sensitivity increases the risk for falls and car accidents.

Aging also decreases overall visual acuity, or sharpness of vision. And ­visual reaction time is diminished. It takes longer for the brain to register what has been seen.

The typical solutions to declining vision are corrective lenses (eyeglasses or contacts) and Lasik laser surgery, in which the cornea is reshaped. But for many people, stronger corrective lenses are needed every six to 18 months, as vision continues to worsen…and Lasik surgery often is not covered by insurance, doesn’t always restore perfect vision and can cause dry eyes, glare and hazy vision.

Exercises Work

New scientific evidence: Researchers from University of California, Riverside and Brown University used eye exercises to improve the eyesight of 16 younger people (average age 22) and 16 older people (average age 71), and published their results in Psychological Science.

After just seven days, diminished contrast sensitivity was eliminated in the older group—in other words, their contrast sensitivity reversed, becoming the same as that of the younger group. And both younger and older adults had improved visual acuity in the problem areas common to their age—older people saw near objects more clearly, and younger people saw far objects more clearly.

Here are three vision-restoring exercises you can do at home. Results can be immediate or take up to six weeks. Once your eyes have improved, keep up the exercises, but you can do them less often. Your eyeglass/contact ­prescription may change, so see your eye-care professional.

Improve near vision and far vision. Practice this simple eye exercise for three or four minutes a few days a week.

Instructions: Look at a calendar on a wall about 10 feet away. In your hand, have another object with numbers or letters, such as a small calendar or an open book. Cover the left eye with your hand. Look back and forth from the far object to the near object, focusing on and calling out a letter or number from each. Example: The “J” in June from the far calendar and the “12” in June 12 from the near calendar. Do this five to 10 times, calling out a different letter or number each time. Cover the right eye, and repeat the exercise. (You also can use an eye patch to cover one eye and then the other.)

Bonus benefit: It’s common after a car accident for the person who is at fault to say that he “never saw” the other vehicle. I call this inattentional blindness—your eyes are on the road, but your vision system is not fully activated, because you’re thinking or moving or otherwise preoccupied. The near-far exercise also improves visual attention.

Improve peripheral vision—the “other” visual system. Corrective lenses correct only central vision, when the eyes focus straight ahead, so that you can read, drive and see details sharply. But there are two key parts to the visual system—central and peripheral vision. And improving peripheral ­vision improves every aspect of seeing, from visual acuity to contrast sensitivity. Everyday enemy of peripheral vision: Stress. Under stress, people see less, remember less and typically the visual field constricts. But there’s a simple exercise called “palming” that relieves stress and eases eyestrain.

Instructions: Sit at a table with your elbows on the table. (Put a pillow under your elbows if that’s more comfortable.) Breathe easily and deeply, relaxing your body. Close your eyes, and notice what you’re seeing—it’s likely there will be visual “chatter,” such as spots and flashes of light. Now cup your palms over your closed eyes, and visualize (create mental imagery of) blackness. Example: Visualize yourself out on the ocean on a moonless night on a black ship on a black sea. The goal of the exercise is to see complete blackness.

Relaxing, breathing deeply, blocking out light and “visual chatter”—and even the warmth of your palms—relaxes the visual system and helps to open up ­peripheral vision.

Do the exercise for as long as you like, from 30 seconds to 30 minutes.

Improve “binocularity”—seeing out of both eyes. A common but little-­recognized vision problem in older adults is a lack of binocularity—one eye is not processing visual detail, which decreases visual acuity and depth perception (crucial for stepping off a curb or walking up stairs without stumbling or falling). This exercise can help you see with both eyes.

For this exercise you’ll need a Brock String, named after its inventor, the ­optometrist Frederick Brock. It’s a simple device—a 10- or 12-foot string with several colored beads on it. (The Brock String is widely available online for around $10 or less.)

Instructions: Attach one end of the string securely to a wall with a nail, tack or tape. Sit 10 feet away from the wall, holding the string so that there is no slack. The closest bead should be about four feet from your eyes.

Hold the string to the side of your nose and look directly at the closest bead, using both eyes—you should see two strings going toward the bead and crossing either in front of or behind the bead. You’re “seeing double” because the device is engineered to generate a double-image, similar to what you might see when your eyes are relaxed and unfocused. This experience helps you become aware that you’re seeing out of both eyes. If you see only one string, you’re not seeing fully out of both eyes. And if the strings cross in front of or behind the bead, your eyes aren’t aimed right at the bead. The goals of the exercise…

  • Keep both strings “turned on” (your eyes will get a “feel” for how to do this).
  • The strings should cross at the bead—if the string crosses ahead of the bead, look a few inches beyond the bead…if the string crosses behind the bead, look in front of the bead.

Do the exercise for three or four minutes, two or three times a week.