SANTA ANA, Calif. – Dan Dunbar lets you look closely at his left eye. And then deeply into it.
It’s impolite to stare, of course, but it has a hypnotic effect: It resembles a cat’s eye with its silky glow. Gen Xers will immediately recall their Steve Austin “Six Million Dollar Man” doll with the bionic left eye.
However, what’s inside Dunbar isn’t theoretical 1970s NASA gadgetry, but 21st-century practical technology: a tiny telescope, with a lens that’s 3.2 millimeters in diameter, surgically implanted into his eyeball. He had the procedure done in 2011 to improve his vision, which had been failing for years because of age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, a condition characterized by a blurry gray or dark spot in the central vision.
The telescope, called CentraSight and made by VisionCare Ophthalmic Technologies Inc., is one of several implantable devices to be developed in recent years to treat a variety of vision problems, from the mild to the devastating: There have been advances in removing cataracts, as well as sophisticated hardware to reduce the impact of glaucoma and even certain kinds of blindness that had few treatments before.
The effect on Dunbar, 82, has been profound. For years he relied on his peripheral vision, peering around the fuzzy center. With the telescope magnifying his field of vision, he can see details that had eluded him for so long: walk/don’t walk signals at intersections near his home in Costa Mesa, Calif.; the contours of the face of his wife, Jean. After much practice, he can use the telescope to read, something he’d largely given up; he’s resumed his passionate hobbies, model trains and woodworking.
The vast majority of Americans has some kind of vision problem, but most are “refractive errors” in which the eye doesn’t bend, or “refract,” properly when light comes in. Disorders such as myopia (nearsightedness) and hyperopia (farsightedness) are easily correctable with eyeglasses.
About two-thirds of U.S. adults wear some type of corrective lenses, either eyeglasses, contacts or reading glasses, according to the National Eye Institute.
Other problems are more serious, however, and can lead to severe vision loss, or partial or total blindness.
Glaucoma, caused by steadily increasing pressure inside the eye, affects more than 2 million Americans age 40 and older, and 3 million older people have age-related macular degeneration, a condition in which the macula, a spot on the retina behind the eye, deteriorates. More than half of people who live to 80 get cataracts, when the lens becomes cloudy and limits vision.
The new generation of tiny, sophisticated optical hardware is being developed just in time: In 1980, there were 26 million people age 65 and older in the United States; by 2020 that number will be 55 million. In California, men who make it to age 65 have a life expectancy of 83.9 years; for women, it’s 86.5.