Laser surgery: the new vision thing
October 20, 2011 | By:
If you’re fed up with needing reading glasses, there are two recent innovations that could help. Markie Robson-Scott talks to some of the first people to have the procedures done
Eyes_laser eye surgery-620 Corbis

Looking up: unlike old treatments, the new ones preserve the eye’s elasticity

We all know the symptoms: forgetting the reading glasses, holding a menu at arms’ length in a dark restaurant, throwing the map out of the window in rage, pressing the wrong key on the mobile. It’s called presbyopia: age-related long-sightedness due to loss of elasticity in the eye lens, which means you can’t focus on anything close-up.

“I wouldn’t bother with Botox, but if I could get rid of the reading glasses that would be fabulous,” says Janet, an illustrator. “They make me feel so old.”

Well, there’s been a breakthrough: two new varieties of laser eye surgery for presbyopia have come on to the market:

Z Kamra is an inlay, inserted on the pupil, creating a pin-hole effect and working on the same principle as a camera aperture by increasing the depth of focus. Focus Clinics says it “freezes time on the ageing process”.

Supracor, from Centre for Sight, creates a ‘customised profile’ on the cornea, making a small area in the centre steeper. The result? You lose the reading glasses, and not because you can’t find them. Eyes like a 25-year-old’s.

Treatment for presbyopia

There are a dizzying number of competing laser eye surgeries available for short sight, long sight and astigmatism, but until now, nothing specifically for presbyopia. The most common treatment for myopia (short sight) is Laser In Situ Keratomileusis (LASIK, otherwise known as flap and zap).

A flap in the cornea is lifted, the curve of the cornea is flattened with the laser, then it’s smoothed back down. It does wonders for those for whom everything is a blur without glasses or contacts. “It’s a miracle” is the most common reaction.

But it has one disadvantage: you’re still likely to need reading glasses as it won’t stop the lens losing its elasticity as you age. Which is one of the reasons (the other is cowardice) that I’ve never had it done as it would remove my close-up-focus super-power: if I take out my contacts, I can read the tiniest print as long as my eyes are about half an inch away from it, which I admit isn’t a terribly elegant look.

Still, it’s an ability that many presbyopic 50-somethings envy, including Neal, a writer who had LASIK for myopia ten years ago. He is happy with his distance vision but now says, “I go through the usual baby-boomer hell with my iPhone, fumbling with sunglasses and reading glasses and phone as I try to read or text. And it would be nice to be able to drive and also read the name of the song playing on the radio.”

Supracor: ‘I fell more youthful’

Accountant John Hyett had been considering laser surgery for a while. But it wasn’t until his aunt Iris – yes, really – left him a windfall that he decided to take the plunge. That happened to be at exactly the moment Supracor came on to the market in May. He is one of eight people in the UK, aged between 48 and 60, to experience it so far.

“Thinking about it was much worse than doing it,” he says. “It’s all over in minutes.”  He claims it has rejuvenated him. “My face looks different and I feel more youthful. I’m reading much more and doing crossword puzzles, which I hadn’t been able to do in years.

“I had varifocal glasses but it was annoying, having to move your head up and down. And lenses gave me dry eyes and were painful.” He says the quality of light is different now: things seem brighter, crisper, more colourful, and he no longer needs so much light to be able to see close detail.

Z Camra: ‘I can read the tube map and texts now’

Teresa Ferguson, a phlebotomist (who needs to be able to focus close-up when taking blood) is one of the first to have had Z Kamra in the UK. “I can read the tube map, I can read texts – it’s fantastic.”

One of her eyes was slightly myopic so she had LASIK on that one, then, a few minutes later, Z Kamra on the second eye. “It’s like a tiny black disc with a hole in it, almost invisible unless you look really closely. The brain learns to operate both eyes together.” She went back to work two days later, though had to use three kinds of eye drops several times a day for ten days.

The cost of laser eye surgery

But should I get zapped? Neither procedure is cheap: about £2,700 an eye. Think of all the money I would save on glasses and daily disposable contacts, though. However, surgeon Sheraz Daya, medical director of the Centre for Sight, tells me that you can only have Supracor if your myopia is below -6 dioptres. (Early in 2012 it will be available to -9.50s like me.)

Slightly depressingly, he tells me that people with severe myopia are more likely to get cataracts, which means he would have to check me thoroughly to see if I had any incipient ones. If I did, he would recommend, rather than Supracor, an alarming-sounding intra-ocular lens replacement procedure (yes, they replace the lens in your eye with a better one) called FINEvision. This tackles near, intermediate and distance vision with wonderful results.

Thanks, but no thanks, it sounds too drastic. I’d rather stick my head in the sand than face up to incipient cataracts. I’ll stick to my contacts for now. And I’ll keep on using my close-up-reading superpower when appropriate.