Those who rely on reading glasses may soon be able to swap them for daily eye drops said to restore perfect vision for up to 12 hours.
They could help an estimated 10million in the country who struggle to read menus, use smartphones or do crosswords because they have difficulty focusing on nearby objects.
This is the result of presbyopia, a natural part of the ageing process that affects more than 40 per cent of those over 50.
Clinical trials are under way in the US on several eyedrop products and, if successful, they could be available in the UK in the next two to three years.
As we get older, the lens at the front of the eye becomes stiff. This reduces its ability to properly focus nearby images on to the retina at the back of the eye.
Reading glasses work by helping light enter the eye at the correct angle so objects look clearer.
Some resort to private surgery for presbyopia, which can cost around £2,500 per eye. But the experimental drops could be a more convenient solution for many.
They contain two drugs – carbachol and brimonidine tartrate – that are widely used to treat vision-robbing conditions such as glaucoma.
They work by making the pupil smaller, creating a ‘pinhole’ effect where light entering the eye passes through a much smaller gap, keeping images in focus.
In a recent study involving 57 patients with presbyopia, most reported a significant improvement in vision within minutes that lasted at least 12 hours. After that, the pupils dilated and words and images became blurred again.
Scientists say most should be able to use the drops in the morning to keep their eyesight working properly throughout the day.
The study was carried out at Al-Azhar University in Egypt, and published in the International Journal of Ophthalmic Research.
British experts last night welcomed the breakthrough but warned the drops may have side-effects.
‘Many people would love a fix for their near vision problems as they get older,’ said Melanie Hingorani, consultant ophthalmologist at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London. ‘Surgery is high risk and the results are not always reliable so it would be nice to have an alternative.
‘But these drops can cause headaches and eye ache. And as the pupils are small, they cannot get bigger in dim light, which might restrict night-time vision.’
Miss Hingorani said larger studies are needed to ensure that the drops do not cause long-term damage to the eyes.
She added: ‘You could just stick with glasses, which are highly effective and very safe.’