Dry Eye in the Elderly – What Does the Research Say?

Dry eye is a common condition, especially among the elderly. It happens when your eyes don’t produce enough tears or when the tears evaporate too quickly. This can lead to discomfort, blurry vision, and sometimes even damage to the surface of your eyes. In this blog post, we’ll explore why dry eye is more common in older adults, what recent research tells us about it, and what you can do to find relief.

Dry Eye in the Elderly – Possible Reasons

As we age, our bodies undergo various changes, and our eyes are no exception. There are several reasons why older adults are more prone to dry eye:

Changes in Tear Production: As we get older, our tear glands may produce fewer tears, or the composition of the tears may change. This can make it harder for our eyes to stay moist and lubricated.

Medications: Many older adults take medications for other health conditions, and some of these medications can contribute to dry eye as a side effect. For example, certain blood pressure medications and antihistamines can reduce tear production.

Environmental Factors: Older adults may be more exposed to environmental factors that can exacerbate dry eye, such as dry air from indoor heating or air conditioning, smoke, or wind.

Underlying Health Conditions: Conditions like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and thyroid disorders are more common in older adults and can also increase the risk of dry eye.

Decreased Blinking: Some older adults may blink less frequently, which can lead to tears evaporating more quickly from the surface of the eye.

Understanding these factors can help us better manage and treat dry eye in older adults.

What Does the Research Say?

In a study conducted by O.D. Schein from the Department of Ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins University, researchers aimed to investigate dry eye symptoms among elderly Americans. The purpose was to understand how common these symptoms were in this demographic group.

To gather data, the researchers conducted a population-based prevalence study in Salisbury, Maryland. They included 2,520 residents aged 65 years and older, using information from the Health Care Financing Administration Medicare database. Each participant completed a standardized questionnaire about dry eye symptoms. Then, 2,420 subjects underwent additional tests including the Schirmer and rose bengal tests, along with an assessment of the meibomian glands.

The results revealed that 14.6% of the participants reported experiencing dry eye symptoms often or all the time. Additionally, 2.2% had both symptoms and a low Schirmer test result, while 2% had symptoms along with a high rose bengal test score. 

Moreover, 3.5% had symptoms along with either a low Schirmer score or a high rose bengal score, and 0.7% had symptoms along with both a low Schirmer score and a high rose bengal score. Surprisingly, there was no clear association found between age, sex, or race with the presence of dry eye symptoms.

Interestingly, even though some participants showed anatomical features of meibomianitis, a condition associated with dry eye, many of them (76%) did not report any symptoms. Furthermore, 10.5% of the participants reported using artificial tears or lubricants to manage their symptoms.

Overall, the study concluded that dry eye symptoms and signs are quite common among elderly individuals, affecting millions of Americans aged 65 to 84 years. However, these symptoms were not linked to demographic factors such as age, sex, or race in this particular study population.

More Research 

Research on dry eye in the elderly has provided valuable insights into the condition and its management. Studies have shown that:

Tear Film Composition: The tear film is made up of layers of oil, water, and mucin, produced by different glands in the eye. Changes in the composition of the tear film can contribute to dry eye symptoms.

Lid Anatomy and Closure: Normal lid anatomy and closure are important for preventing evaporation of the tear film. Issues with eyelid function can worsen dry eye symptoms.

Current Therapies: The main treatments for dry eye include artificial tears, ointments, and good lid hygiene. In more severe cases, procedures like tear duct occlusion may be necessary.

Inflammatory Component: Some researchers believe that dry eye may have an underlying inflammatory component. Preliminary studies on treatments like topical cyclosporine have shown promising results in reducing inflammation and improving symptoms.

Understanding these research findings can help healthcare providers tailor treatment plans for older adults with dry eye.


If you’re experiencing dry eye symptoms, there are several steps you can take to find relief:

Use Artificial Tears: Over-the-counter artificial tears can help lubricate your eyes and relieve discomfort. Look for preservative-free formulas if you need to use them frequently.

Stay Hydrated: Drinking plenty of water can help keep your body hydrated, including your eyes. Aim for at least eight glasses of water a day.

Protect Your Eyes: Wear sunglasses outdoors to shield your eyes from wind, dust, and sunlight. Indoors, consider using a humidifier to add moisture to the air.

Good Lid Hygiene: Keep your eyelids clean by gently washing them with warm water and mild soap. This can help prevent blockages in the oil glands along the eyelid margin.

Follow Your Doctor’s Advice: If you have underlying health conditions that contribute to dry eye, work with your healthcare provider to manage them effectively. They may also recommend specific treatments or interventions for your dry eye symptoms.

By taking these steps, you can help alleviate dry eye symptoms and improve the overall health of your eyes.


Dry eye is a common condition that affects many older adults, but it doesn’t have to be a constant source of discomfort. By understanding the factors that contribute to dry eye and following simple strategies for relief, you can keep your eyes comfortable and healthy as you age. 

If you’re experiencing persistent dry eye symptoms, don’t hesitate to reach out to your healthcare provider for guidance and support. With the right approach, you can find relief and enjoy clear, comfortable vision for years to come.

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