The age profile of contact lens wearers has changed very markedly over the past 10 years and particularly within the past 2 years. Ten years ago, the age demographic was probably 16-40 years. Now it is more like 8-80 years.
In terms of the lower age cut-off, the biggest barrier was the fact that the various professional regulatory bodies never agreed an appropriate cut off age. In the absence of this, eye care practitioners were always loathe to fit much younger patients for fear of potential litigation.
The onset of presbyopia (age related reading problems due to a loss of elasticity of the intraocular crystalline lens and loss of power of the ciliary muscles) historically meant that happy contact lens wearers rapidly dropped out of contact lens wear when faced with the prospect of wearing reading glasses over their contact lenses.
Contact lenses and the younger wearer.
So the minimum age for fitting children in practice has fallen dramatically in the past couple of years. There are a number of reasons for this - children are maturing earlier etc. However, the most compelling reason is the almost unique combination of a reducing retail price per lens and a significant improvement in lens quality. 20 years ago contact lens wearers paid $100 or £100 for a single pair of standard HEMA contact lenses which they wore every day for probably 2 years.
Nowadays they are paying less than $1 or £1 for a pair of lenses which they can throw away at the end of the day thus ensuring a much more hygienic and healthier wearing experience.
In practice, fitting a 12 year old is quite normal and children as young as 8 years old can be very successfully fitted with contact lenses providing they are given very clear instruction on the use and care of their contact lenses. Studies have shown that compliance with lens care can be better (and is usually not worse) in younger patients compared to their older counterparts.
Contact lenses and the older wearer
As mentioned above the onset of presbyopia has historically been a big problem for contact lens wearers in the past. While their spectacle wearing counterparts moved to varifocal spectacles the contact lens wearers were left with wearing readers over their lenses which for many people defeated the object of getting contact lenses in the first place. In recent years we presbyopes enjoy much better health and are involved in very active sports which still require contact lens wear. The attitudes towards appearance have changed significantly as well - perhaps we're all getting a little vainer?
Historically, the only contact lens solution was monovision - wearing a contact lens for distance vision in their dominant eye and one with the reading prescription in the non-dominant eye (Yes, just as we are right handed or right footed we can also be right or left eye dominant). This method can be very successful in a percentage of people but some find it very disorientating and find their depth perception is impaired.
The latest innovations are multifocal contact lenses which correct both distance and reading simultaneously. Alcon, Johnson & Johnson, Bausch & Lomb and Coopervision have all developed multifocal contact lenses using the newer higher quality materials available. All are available in monthly disposable and daily disposable forms. While they do take a little getting used to, the author can attest that they really do work and bring an additional freedom into sports and social occasions.