Please note: This information was current at the time of publication. But medical information is always changing, and some information given here may be out of date. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit, the AAFP patient education website.

Information from Your Family Doctor

Vision Loss: What You Should Know


Am Fam Physician. 2008 May 15;77(10):1437-1438.

  See related article on vision loss.

What is low vision?

The term “low vision” includes people who are legally blind and people who are not legally blind, but who cannot see well enough to function on their own. People who are legally blind have vision worse than 20/200. This means that they see objects that are 20 feet away as though they are 200 feet away. People with low vision need special devices to help them see well enough to do their normal daily activities.

What causes vision loss?

Some vision changes are a normal part of aging, such as trouble focusing on close objects. Other common causes of vision loss are injury, infections, and changes linked with other illnesses. The main causes of vision loss in people older than 40 years are:

  • Macular degeneration (“MAK-yoo-ler DE-jen-ur-AY-shun”). This happens because of changes in the back of the eye.

  • Glaucoma (“glaw-KOH-mah”). This is pressure from the fluid inside the eye.

  • Cataracts (“CAT-uh-racts”). This is a clouding of the lens inside the eye.

  • Diabetic retinopathy (“DIE-uh-BET-ic RET-in-AH-path-ee”). This happens when people with diabetes have changes in the back of the eye because of high blood sugar.

How can I tell if I'm losing my vision?

You might have vision problems if you have trouble with your normal activities, such as reading mail, watching television, signing your name, paying bills, or walking up and down stairs. You might have trouble recognizing people.

What can I do for my vision problems?

You should visit your doctor if vision problems keep you from doing your normal activities. He or she can treat any problems that might be causing your vision loss. Your doctor can also help you find specialists to treat your vision problems. For many patients, a team approach is the best way to treat vision loss. Some of the specialists might include:

  • An ophthalmologist to treat the eye disease causing the vision problems.

  • An optometrist to manage the vision problems.

  • A doctor specializing in low vision to prescribe optical aids, such as special magnifiers and telescopes.

  • A physical therapist to help you with balance and walking problems, and to teach you how to use a cane if you need one.

  • An occupational therapist to help you with normal daily activities and to teach you how to use optical aids.

  • A social worker or therapist to help you cope with the emotional issues of vision loss.

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor

American Academy of Family Physicians

Web site:

American Academy of Ophthalmology

Telephone: 1-415-561-8500

Web site:

American Council of the Blind

Telephone: 1-800-424-8666

Web site:

American Foundation for the Blind

Telephone: 1-800-232-5463

Web site:

American Optometric Association

Telephone: 1-800-365-2219

Web site:

Jewish Guild for the Blind

Telephone: 1-800-284-4422

Web site:

National Federation of the Blind

Telephone: 1-410-659-9314

Web site:

Prevent Blindness America

Telephone: 1-800-331-2020

Web site:

This handout is provided to you by your family doctor and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other health-related information is available from the AAFP online at

This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.


Copyright © 2008 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
This content is owned by the AAFP. A person viewing it online may make one printout of the material and may use that printout only for his or her personal, non-commercial reference. This material may not otherwise be downloaded, copied, printed, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any medium, whether now known or later invented, except as authorized in writing by the AAFP. Contact for copyright questions and/or permission requests.

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