Age often brings with it a variety of health problems, including vision changes. One commonly noticed symptom among older and elderly people is watery eyes, or excessive tearing. While this is usually just a sign of allergies or irritation, in older adults it can sometimes be a symptom of an underlying eye condition. 
We’ll take a closer look at some of the causes of watery eyes in older people, and what can be done to help.

How do tears help to keep your eyes healthy?

Tears play an important part in maintaining our overall eye health. They keep the eyes moist, prevent dryness, and protect them from irritants by washing away debris and dust particles. Tears also supply the eye with oxygen and nutrients, and even help prevent infections. Once the tears have served their purpose, they are drained away through tiny ducts in the corners of your eyes.

What causes watery eyes in older and elderly people?

Watery eyes in elderly people occur for a number of reasons, from minor infections to more serious eye conditions. It is important for friends and loved ones to recognise these eye problems as early as possible, so they can be treated before they develop further or cause complications.

Droopy eyelids (ectropion)

The most common cause of watery eyes in the elderly is ectropion — a name given to the sagging of the lower eyelids that develops as we age. In older adults, this can cause excessive eye-watering as the skin of the eyelids becomes lax and droops away from the eye, reducing the ability of the eyelids to drain tears away through the tear ducts, causing them to accumulate on the surface of the eye. This is what commonly causes the watery, teary eyes you might notice in elderly friends or relatives.

Dry eye syndrome

Elderly people frequently experience dry eyes because the eyes naturally produce less tears as we age. Ironically, dry eye syndrome can actually cause the eyes to overwater. When the tear glands do not produce enough moisture regularly, the eyes become dry and irritated. To remedy this, the tear glands overcompensate and produce a flood of tears, leading to watery eyes. Alongside this, dry eyes can also develop as a side effect of medications or as a symptom of co-existing eye conditions, like glaucoma.

Cataracts

Cataracts are commonly characterised by cloudy, misty vision. This condition can make the eyes more sensitive to light, which can lead to excessive tear production. They usually develop slowly over many years, so even if someone has not been diagnosed with cataracts, it’s important to notice the signs and have them seen by an optometrist for further tests. If the eyes have been watering because of the presence of a cataract, surgery to remove the cataract may help reduce the watering too. 

Meibomian gland dysfunction (MGD)

Meibomian gland dysfunction (MGD) is a group of disorders that affects the composition of the tear film. The most common cause of MGD is age, with some studies showing that it affects up to 78% of older people.1 Themeibomian glands are located on the edge of the eyelid and produce oil that prevents the tears from drying up too rapidly. Over time, changes to this oil or the glands that produce it can lead to excessive eye watering because the tears evaporate more quickly, so more tears have to be produced.

Eye infections and inflammation

Watery eyes in older people can also be the result of conjunctivitis or other eye infections that you become more prone to as you age. Infections can cause the eyelids and conjunctiva to swell, and might lead to blocked tear ducts which can prevent the tears from draining properly.

How can a home eye test help?

If you notice excessive eye watering in an older friend or relative, it’s important that they see an optometrist to have their eyes checked thoroughly. We understand that some older adults may find it difficult or be unable to attend eye tests in-store due to physical or mental disabilities, which is where our home visits service can help.

Our visiting opticians can perform a full eye test at home, and in care homes, to check the overall health of the eyes, and detect any underlying cause of overwatering. If a serious eye condition is found, we’ll be able to advise on the appropriate treatment options, or refer you to a specialist for further testing.

Find out if you or someone you care for is eligible for a free NHS-funded home eye test here. Or, to learn more about our home care (domiciliary) services, visit our home visits page.

References

1. Alghamdi YA, Mercado C, McClellan AL, Batawi H, Karp CL, Galor A. Epidemiology of Meibomian Gland Dysfunction in an Elderly Population. Cornea. 2016;35(6):731-735. [Online]. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4860128 [Accessed 27 June 2020].