Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The effects of Aging on Color Vision

It is common knowledge that vision problems crop up as we age. The Mayo Clinic’s website mentions the four most well known: Cataracts, Glaucoma, Macular degeneration, and Floaters[1]. It is less well known that our ability to see color also decreases as we age. This knowledge comes in handy on one of our current projects: the Mary Helen Rogers Senior Community. The community, which is currently being built in San Francisco near Civic Center, is named for the well-loved local Mary Helen Rogers who was called the "true matriarch of community activism in San Francisco," by former Mayor Gavin Newsom. She was a founding member of the Western Addition Community Organization, a group that forced the city to support its lower income residents displaced by racism and urban renewal.  In the spirit of her generosity we also wanted to do our best to support the future community there with our own work, and with an aging community come aging eyes. 

How do you go about designing a color environment for people who see very differently from you? The first step, as always, is research. “Cells in the retina that are responsible for normal color vision decline in sensitivity as we age, causing colors to become less bright and the contrast between different colors to be less noticeable. In particular, blue colors may appear faded or "washed out." [2] To counteract this degradation environments for seniors should be outfitted with higher contrast surfaces, such as increasing the contrast between a floor and countertop.

Also, the “muscles that control our pupil size and reaction to light lose some strength. This causes the pupil to become smaller and less responsive to changes in ambient lighting. Because of these changes, people in their 60s need three times more ambient light for comfortable reading than those in their 20s.”[3] This greater need for light in the eye can also be addressed in the environment with brighter colors, which bounce more wavelengths of light back to the eye than duller colors. As seen in the graphic below, low saturation colors quickly turn toward black and white as vision ages while high saturation colors maintain a high degree of visual vibrancy.  

A recent study in The Journal of Gerontology on color vision in the aging eye returned informative results on the particular qualities of color that are more difficult for seniors to see. The study measured the “losses of color vision in the dimensions of hue, saturation, and brightness”[4] The study demonstrated a “loss of discrimination of saturation beginning at age 50, with rapid change noted after age 60. Similar findings were seen for hue but were not evident for brightness.” The participating scientists concluded with the hope that this “information will provide a basis for planning safer, more functional environments for elderly people.”

We selected a color palette for the interior to aid in way finding in this 8 story building.  Here are some of our selections.

- Emily Eifler, Associate Designer, Colour Studio

[1] Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.com/health/vision-problems
[2] All about vision, www.allaboutvision.com/over60/vision-changes.htm
[3] All about vision
[4] The Journal of Gerontology, geronj.oxfordjournals.org/content/46/6/P320.short


  1. I never knew this. It is very useful info- I am involved at our local Old Age Home. Also a warning for myself- I love bold colours and have only 6 years left to enjoy it!

  2. Thank you Jill for another enlightening (ahem) post. I appreciate your intelligent, user-centric approach to color design.

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  4. Macular degeneration is the name given to a group of chronic, degenerative retinal eye diseases that cause progressive loss of central vision, leaving the peripheral or side vision intact. This disease create problem in daily activity. Macular degeneration tratment

  5. Retinitis pigmentosa is a term that refers to group of hereditary disorders that affect the retina's ability to respond to light. There is no cure for RP, treatments are available for managing for this disease. Our Stem cells retinitis pigmentosa treatment can control this disease.

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  8. How do cataracts apply to this information? Does cataract surgery help or is that a separate issue from weakening pupil muscles and declining retina cells? I've heard older people after cataract surgery exclaim about the bright colors and high contrast. How does that play into aging vision?