Addiction & Substance Overuse
Vision Health

ThirdAge Health Close-Up: Smoking and Your Eyesight

Editor’s note: Smoking is the leading, preventable cause of death and disease in the U.S.  Each year tobacco use kills more than 480,000 Americans.  Smoking cause’s immediate damage to the body and it can lead to serious long-term health problems.   In fact, for every smoking-related death, at least 30 Americans live with a smoking-related illness.  The only proven protection is to never smoke or to quit smoking. Although most of us think of lung cancer when we consider smoking-related health risks, as this story shows, there can be other serious consequences:

Marlene was a 15-year-old, Long Island high school student when she smoked her first cigarette.  Soon she was teaching her girlfriends how to inhale and within months she was hooked on nicotine.

It was the 1960s and Marlene thought smoking made her look cool.  Cigarettes became Marlene’s constant friend, a friend who was with her through good times and bad.

As an adult, Marlene (last name withheld) married Jonathan, also a smoker, and together the couple raised three daughters.  Decades later, Marlene, now in her late 40s and still smoking, began to notice problems with her vision.

Initially, the changes were subtle, with only some small, cloudy spots in her vision.  Soon, however, Marlene started noting other changes.  Watching television, for example, was no longer enjoyable because the picture looked distorted.  Reading was also difficult and driving a car had become challenging.

“I’d get frustrated when I drove because road signs and billboards looked blurry,” said Marlene.  “I’d complain to Jonathan, but he wasn’t seeing the same thing I was seeing.”

Jonathan became more concerned when vision issues caused Marlene to frequently lose her balance and sometimes fall.   Then, she cut herself while chopping vegetables.  Her vision was now so impaired she mistook her thumb for a carrot.

About this time, the couple had a bathroom in their home professionally tiled, Jonathan was pleased with the outcome, but Marlene was not.  To her, the tile didn’t look straight, appearing instead like a big mass of wavy lines.

Jonathan insisted it was time for Marlene to see a doctor.

Their quest for answers was a long journey.  Marlene saw numerous eye specialists; however none of them was able to explain her baffling condition.  Finally, at age 56, Marlene was referred to a retina specialist who diagnosed a serious eye disease called age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

A progressive disease, AMD has no cure and until recent years no effective treatments.  In Marlene’s case, she had a more aggressive type of AMD.

AMD does not cause complete blindness, but it does destroy the eye’s central, straight-ahead vision that is needed for reading, driving, recognizing faces and completing countless everyday tasks.  The disease leaves the peripheral or corner vision untouched while the vision center eventually becomes a black hole.