If You’re Straining to Read This, It Might Be Time for Reading Glasses

Millennials, welcome to your 40s

By Perry Santanachote

With age comes the wisdom to see the world more clearly but also the inability to see what’s right in front of your face. First it giveth, then it taketh away. Luckily, with the right reading glasses, you’re unstoppable—until your hips give out, anyway—but that’s way down the road.

According to The Vision Council, 34.5 million Americans (13.2 percent) wear over-the-counter reading glasses—and most who do are over 45. But according to our experts, you should take action sooner, at age 40, when you might initially realize you have resting squint face.

Here, we answer your questions about what’s going on with your eyes, how to remedy this totally natural process, and how to find the best reading glasses for you.

What Happens to Your Eyes as You Age?

Presbyopia is the gradual loss of your eye’s ability to focus on nearby objects. The eye’s lens, which is behind the iris, focuses light on the retina so that you can see clearly. But the lens loses flexibility and hardens over time, a natural, albeit annoying, part of aging. According to the Mayo Clinic, lenses change shape when they switch from long-distance vision to close-up images, giving you that instantaneous macro focus. The loss of flexibility makes it increasingly difficult to focus on things nearby, like Google map directions or your latest craft project.

This delay in focusing is just how the eye ages, and it eventually happens to everyone, says Stephanie Marioneaux, MD, an ophthalmologist in Chesapeake, Va., and a clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. “There is nothing you can do to postpone, stall, or treat it, but reading glasses help compensate for it,” she says. And if you’re nearsighted, you might be able to hold off on wearing reading glasses for some time (more on that below).

People start to notice it when they engage in what Marioneaux calls accordion vision, or trombone vision, when you need to move something toward and away from your face repeatedly until your eyes can focus on something. “But the moment you notice a change in your vision,” she says, “it’s essential to get a complete and thorough eye exam by an ophthalmologist.”

Marioneaux says that while reading glasses might initially help you see better in the store, they could mask other issues affecting your vision, such as cataracts, medications, diabetes, or dryness. And even if you’re seeing fine at age 40 but have never had a complete dilated eye exam by an ophthalmologist, it’s time.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology has a free public service program if you don’t have health insurance or can’t afford an eye exam. See if you qualify.

What Do Reading Glasses Do?

Reading glasses are essentially magnifying glasses. “They do what the eye can’t do anymore,” Marioneaux says. “They focus for certain [closer] distances.”

The power—or strength—of reading glasses goes from +0.75 to over +4.00 in increments of 0.25. These numbers are called diopters. They tell you how much strength the lenses have.

How Do You Know What Strength Reading Glasses to Get?

An eye exam is the best way to determine what reading-glass strength you need initially. The strength will need to increase about every five years, Marioneaux says, until you’re 65 and lose all focusing ability.

In your early 40s, an eye doctor will probably suggest that you start with the weakest pair of reading glasses that still improve your vision. You don’t want to use stronger lenses too quickly because you still have some focusing ability, and those lenses can weaken your eyes. Reading glasses are like crutches; they can help you walk, but if your legs still function, those muscles will atrophy with continued use, according to Marioneaux. “It’s the same if you jump into strong reading glasses,” she says. “If those focusing muscles aren’t used, you will have a more rapid decline in focusing ability and need stronger and stronger reading glasses at a much earlier age.”

Where Should You Shop for Reading Glasses?

Reading glasses are available practically everywhere from dollar stores and convenience stores to doctors’ offices and direct-to-consumer brands. But the abundance of options, from $10 to hundreds of dollars, can make finding the right pair feel overwhelming. See the best and worst eyeglass stores based on CR’s member survey.

There’s nothing wrong with cheaper, over-the-counter reading glasses, but they work well for only a handful of people. “Only patients who can see 20/20 for distance uncorrected will fully benefit from OTC reading glasses,” Marioneaux says. “Everybody else is sort of hit or miss.” For instance, if you have astigmatism (when the eye’s cornea or lens isn’t perfectly round) or don’t have the same prescription for both eyes, these generic readers will fall short.

“Once you see your ophthalmologist, they’ll be able to determine if OTC reading glasses will work for you,” says Marioneaux. “Once you figure that out, you can buy them anywhere you want and pay whatever you want for them, but some people will need prescription glasses.”

(Remember that after an exam, the eye doctor should give you a copy of your prescription, but you’re not obligated to purchase your glasses from the ophthalmologist.)

Progressive lenses are a popular choice for prescription eyeglasses. They combine multiple prescriptions in one lens, so you can wear only one pair of glasses to correct faraway, middle-distance, and up-close vision. People who have problems only with reading might also like this option. The lenses would be nonprescription on top so that you can wear them continuously. As in, no need to take your reading glasses on and off throughout the day and risk misplacing them in the fridge or other random spots.

Another perk of buying a custom pair of readers from an optician is the high-index lens material that makes the lenses thinner and lighter, says Michael Vitale, vice president of membership and technical affairs at The Vision Council.

Prescription lenses are also higher-quality, while the cheaper OTC readers can have distortions or bubbles. And while buying eyeglasses online is harmless, Marioneaux says it can be a bit of a hassle to get the right pair because there’s no optician to measure your pupillary distance and align the lenses’ optical centers.

Buying reading glasses online or at a drugstore does tend to be cheaper, though, and makes it more financially possible to buy more than one pair, which consumers tend to do. According to The Vision Council’s Consumer inSights Q1 2022 report, which includes the summarized results of a consumer survey of 15,015 respondents, 30 percent who bought reading glasses bought two pairs, and 29 percent bought three or more. And the 20 percent of people who bought glasses online were substantially more likely to buy more than one pair. Seventy percent of the online shoppers bought multiple pairs compared to 44 percent of the in-person shoppers.

Are Reading Glasses Okay for Computer Reading?

Working on the computer typically takes place at a greater distance than reading a book and thus requires a lower strength, according to Marioneaux. “We have multifocal lenses for exactly that reason, but the line of sight for the various distances can be very narrow,” she says. Finding that sweet spot can cause people to tilt and cock their heads at odd angles to hit the right spot on their lenses. Think: Chuck Schumer trying to read a . . . well, anything, really.

People often get a separate pair of computer readers, which would be a different (weaker) strength than their reading glasses. And if you’re just about 40, you may not need glasses for the computer, Marioneaux says. “You may see the computer pretty well and only need glasses for reading.”

Can You Wear Readers With Contacts?

If you wear contact lenses only to help correct astigmatism, a basic pair of reading glasses can certainly help with focus loss.

“If you’re nearsighted, your world is better close up than far away,” Marioneaux says. “If your normal prescription is -1.00 to -1.75 and you’re able to read and see the computer without correction, you could take one contact out and go monovision.” That’s monovision, not WandaVision, but it’s still kind of a superpower. You’d use one eye for distance and one eye for closeup. You may not need reading glasses until your mid-40s, maybe even 50. But if your prescription is a -2.00 or above, your vision might stop too close for this trick to work. (If you see 20/20 uncorrected for distance and need help for reading up close, Marioneaux says a single contact lens for near vision is also a possibility.)

“The good news is, for nearsighted people, the pendulum will swing backward,” says Marioneaux. “While everybody else is putting glasses on to read in their 50s and 60s, you’ll be taking your glasses off to read because as you get older, your reading distance will go further and further away until finally, it will be just perfect.”

“You’ll take those glasses off, and you’ll be able to read books,” Marioneaux says. “You’ll be able to thread needles. You’ll be able to say to people, ‘Give me the menu. I’ll read it for you.’ ”

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