Fading, close-up vision is one of the more vexing and ubiquitous consequences of growing older. For Cheri Ekstadt of Lakeville, Minnesota, it’s meant buying nine pairs of reading glasses, which she places wherever she might come across something with fine print.
“I usually have three upstairs and three downstairs and some in my purse,” says Ekstadt, 50.
Without the glasses, she can’t read anything.
“Looking at the computer— whether it be for work, for Facebook— any labels when I’m out shopping, reading the newspaper, I can’t do that,” she says.
Like millions of other Americans over age 35, Ekstadt has presbyopia, aging eyes. Some notice it more than others, but it happens to everyone when the lenses in the eyes lose their flexibility.
“It’s just a part of getting older,” says Dr. Ralph Chu, an ophthalmologist in private practice in Bloomington, Minnesota.
But that may be changing. In a little over a year, the FDA approved two new devices to help with age-related vision loss. The most recent to receive approval, the “Raindrop”, is made mostly from water and works by reshaping the cornea helping the eye to focus better on close-up objects.
Both of the new implants, Raindrop and KAMRA, go into only one eye. The other eye will be for seeing distance, explains Dr. D. Rex Hamilton, director of the Laser Refractive Center at the Stein Eye Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a clinical professor of ophthalmology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
“So the other eye needs to have good distance vision without glasses,” Hamilton says, adding that sometimes people have laser surgery to improve the distance vision in the eye that won’t be getting an implant to improve vision close-up.
Also, Hamilton notes, the implants aren’t a “be all end all. They may work quite well for a period of time but a person's lenses will continue to change with age and, ultimately, the patient may need cataract surgery.
A cataract procedure replaces the lens, improving both near and far vision, and lasts for the rest of the patient’s life. About half of Americans have cataracts or cataract surgery by age 80, according to the National Eye Institute.
Still, for those who don’t want to wait till their lenses cloud over, “this is a life-changing procedure,” Chu says. “This is more than just about convenience. It’s functioning in your day-to-day life.”
No more readers?
Ekstadt has the privilege of being the first person in the nation to get the Raindrop outside of a clinical trial.
The procedure to implant the device into Ekstadt’s cornea takes less than 5 minutes: The doctor uses a laser to create a tiny pocket in her cornea and two minutes later the Raindrop is inserted and the procedure is finished.
Just 15 minutes after the surgery Ekstadt can already see better and can make out a line in the eye chart that she couldn’t decipher before.
And now she’s able to read without the aid of glasses.
That doesn’t mean she won’t need more attention from her doctor, says Hamilton. “There’s a healing process after the inlay is put in that requires eye drops be put in on a daily basis for around three months," says Hamilton. "You need to be monitored by your surgeon during that period of time.”
One downside: the implants aren’t covered by insurance or Medicare, says Hamilton, adding “the cost is around $4,000 to $5,000.”
There are other risks with the procedure, but they are rare, according to clinical trials.
“Any time you do surgery there is a risk of infection—about one in 2,000,” Hamilton says. “And an infection in the cornea can cause scarring that can affect your vision.”
Hamilton suggests that people wanting to have an implant find an experienced eye surgeon, one who does both cataract surgery and refractive surgery, which includes LASIK.
Lauren Dunn is a medical producer for NBC News; Linda Carroll is a contributor for NBCNews.com