Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2008;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

American Academy of Ophthalmology

American Council of the Blind

American Foundation for the Blind

American Optometric Association

Jewish Guild for the Blind

National Federation of the Blind

Prevent Blindness America

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