Vision loss in over 40's is becoming a major public health problem

With the aging of the population, the number of Americans with major eye diseases is increasing, and vision loss is becoming a major public health problem. By the year 2020, the number of people who are blind or have low vision is projected to increase substantially. These findings appear in the April issue of Archives of Ophthalmology.

Blindness or low vision affects 3.3 million Americans age 40 and over, or one in 28, according to study authors. This figure is projected to reach 5.5 million by the year 2020. The study reports that low vision and blindness increase significantly with age, particularly in people over age 65. People 80 years of age and older currently make up eight percent of the population, but account for 69 percent of blindness. The study provides the most robust and up-to-date estimates available of the burden of visual impairment. It was sponsored by the National Eye Institute (NEI), part of the Federal government's National Institutes of Health (NIH).

"Blindness and low vision can lead to loss of independence and reduced quality of life," said Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., Director of the NIH. "As our population lives longer, eye disease will be an ever greater concern. These data underscore NIH's commitment to the support of vision research that will prevent, delay, and possibly cure eye diseases."

The study identifies age-related macular degeneration (AMD), glaucoma, cataract, and diabetic retinopathy as the most common eye diseases in Americans age 40 and over. The leading cause of blindness among white Americans is AMD, accounting for 54 percent of all blindness. Among African Americans, the leading causes of blindness are cataract and glaucoma. Among Hispanics, glaucoma is the most common cause of blindness. The study authors emphasize the importance of annual comprehensive eye examinations in preventing and/or delaying eye disease for those at higher risk for blindness, such as those over age 65, people with diabetes, or African Americans over age 40.

Study authors provide estimates of the number of Americans with each disease. The authors say that due largely to the aging of the population, the prevalence of low vision and blindness will increase markedly by 2020.

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