Eyes changing color as people age is a common belief. Many assume that eyes become grey or cloudy with age. But is this really true? The short answer is no, not exactly. While some changes do occur in the eyes as we get older, it’s not as simple as eyes going from a vibrant youthful color to grey. Let’s take a closer look at what’s really happening when our eyes seem to change color.
The Iris and Eye Color
The colored part of the eye is called the iris. The iris is made up of two layers – the front pigmented fibrovascular layer known as the stroma and the back epithelial layer. The stroma contains melanin, which is the pigment that gives eyes their color. Eyes can be brown, blue, green, hazel, grey, violet, or even multicolored. The amount and type of melanin in the iris determines eye color. Higher amounts of melanin lead to darker colors while lower amounts lead to lighter eye colors.
Melanin and Age
As we age, the melanin levels in our irises can decrease and change. The front stroma layer of the iris contains melanocytes, cells that produce and store melanin. Melanin production generally peaks by 1 year of age and then slowly declines. By age 50, the number of melanocytes in the eyes drops about 20%. And by age 80, melanin density can decrease by up to 50%.
Other Age-Related Changes
In addition to lower melanin, other age-related changes can affect how our eyes look. These include:
- The iris becoming thinner and more translucent
- The pupil size decreasing
- More collagen developing in the stroma
- The epithelial back layer accumulating deposits
- A gradual loss of clear gel in the eye called vitreous humor
All of these changes reduce the depth and intensity of eye color. They allow more light to scatter and reflect off the back of the iris, creating a lighter, less vivid color.
Cataracts and Eye Color
One of the most common eye issues associated with aging is cataracts. Cataracts cause the lens of the eye to become clouded over time. They often appear grey, white, or yellow and can obstruct the natural color of the iris. Cataracts make eyes seem paler and lighter. If cataracts significantly worsen, surgery can be done to remove and replace the lens. This may improve the original eye color.
Another age-related condition is arcus senilis. This is the development of a greyish-white ring that forms around the cornea (the front clear surface of the eye). It occurs due to cholesterol deposits and can make eyes appear paler. However, arcus senilis does not actually affect iris pigmentation or eye color.
True Grey Eyes
While eye color may appear to “turn grey”, true grey eyes are very rare. They make up only about 1% of the global population. Grey eyes get their color from having low to moderate, more evenly distributed levels of melanin. This gives both the stroma and epithelium a blueish-grey color. The onset of arcus senilis can make grey eyes seem more prominent. But grey eye color that exists from birth generally does not change with age.
In summary, the common perception that eyes turn grey with age is not entirely accurate. A loss of melanin, cataracts, arcus senilis, and other age-related factors can reduce the intensity and depth of eye color over time. This causes many eyes to appear lighter and less vivid. But true grey eye color that originates from birth remains stable throughout life. While some changes are normal, significant alterations in eye color can also be a sign of eye disease and should be evaluated by an ophthalmologist.
|Age Range||Changes in Eye Color and Appearance|
|0-1 years old||Melanin production peaks, establishing stable eye color|
|30-50 years old||Melanin density in iris begins to decline slowly|
|50+ years old||Iris becomes thinner and more transparent, reducing color intensity|
|60+ years old||Melanin density drops by up to 50%, pupil size decreases|
|70+ years old||Arcus senilis and early cataracts may develop, obstructing natural eye color|