Spatial vision in older adults: perceptual changes and neural bases

Ophthalmic Physiol Opt. 2018 Jul;38(4):363-375. doi: 10.1111/opo.12565. Epub 2018 May 17.


Purpose: The number of older adults is rapidly increasing internationally, leading to a significant increase in research on how healthy ageing impacts vision. Most clinical assessments of spatial vision involve simple detection (letter acuity, grating contrast sensitivity, perimetry). However, most natural visual environments are more spatially complicated, requiring contrast discrimination, and the delineation of object boundaries and contours, which are typically present on non-uniform backgrounds. In this review we discuss recent research that reports on the effects of normal ageing on these more complex visual functions, specifically in the context of recent neurophysiological studies.

Recent findings: Recent research has concentrated on understanding the effects of healthy ageing on neural responses within the visual pathway in animal models. Such neurophysiological research has led to numerous, subsequently tested, hypotheses regarding the likely impact of healthy human ageing on specific aspects of spatial vision.

Summary: Healthy normal ageing impacts significantly on spatial visual information processing from the retina through to visual cortex. Some human data validates that obtained from studies of animal physiology, however some findings indicate that rethinking of presumed neural substrates is required. Notably, not all spatial visual processes are altered by age. Healthy normal ageing impacts significantly on some spatial visual processes (in particular centre-surround tasks), but leaves contrast discrimination, contrast adaptation, and orientation discrimination relatively intact. The study of older adult vision contributes to knowledge of the brain mechanisms altered by the ageing process, can provide practical information regarding visual environments that older adults may find challenging, and may lead to new methods of assessing visual performance in clinical environments.

Keywords: ageing; centre-surround; contrast; spatial vision; vision.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aging*
  • Discrimination, Psychological / physiology*
  • Form Perception / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Visual Acuity / physiology*
  • Visual Cortex / physiology*
  • Visual Pathways / physiology*