Vision-threatening eye disorders on the rise

Posted: June 21, 2012

The last 10 years have seen a dramatic rise in the percentage of older Americans afflicted with vision-threatening eye disorders, as seen in new data released by Prevent Blindness America in partnership with the National Eye Institute and Johns Hopkins University.

"I think it's alarming that the prevalence rates are rising because these are devastating diseases," says Richard S. Kaiser, a retina surgeon at Wills Eye Institute. "It's one thing to talk about a population, and describe a population with a disease, but … when you are with these people day in and day out, it is heartbreaking to have to diagnose them with these conditions."

While the U.S. population of people aged 40 and older grew by 19.5 percent between 2000 and 2010, the number of people with the most common diabetic eye disease – diabetic retinopathy – increased more than 89 percent. It is the leading cause of blindness in American adults. Age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss in Americans 60 and older, increased by 25.3 percent in those aged 50 and up. Cataracts in those 40+ increased 19.2 percent, while glaucoma for the same group increased 22 percent.

The report was released as part of a national summit being held in Washington, DC today.

Even as cases are on the rise, recent advances in treatment for those afflicted have had dramatic results. In particular, drugs for those with the most serious form of macular degeneration, called "wet," have allowed even those diagnosed as legally blind to resume daily life. Kaiser explains: "Fifteen years ago, if you were diagnosed with wet macular degeneration, you were going to lose your vision – it was just a matter of how quickly. [Now] if we catch people early, we are 95 percent effective in stopping progression of the disease, and can improve vision in 40 to 50 percent of patients."

However, a major issue, especially in Philadelphia, is that excellent health facilities are accessible, but still underutilized by the public. Julia A. Haller, ophthalmologist-in-chief at Wills Eye Institute, says: "At one end, you have these fabulous cutting edge treatments, and at the other end … there are people in this country – in this city – with arguably the densest concentration of healthcare in the world … going blind from preventable disease, and it's a shame."

Paul P. Lee, Director of the W.K. Kellogg Eye Center at University of Michigan, explains that the reasons for this are numerous and still under debate: "The reasons why people don't come in [for eye exams] are multiple. Many may not have insurance or financial means, or feel they wouldn't benefit from it. There are issues related to trust, or as simple as not having someone who can help with transportation."

Another topic to be addressed at the summit is the Center for Disease Control's funding dedicated to national vision and eye health efforts has been reduced in the last year from $3.2 million to $511,000.

"People don't really think about their eyes till they're a problem," says Brian L. VanderBeek, a retina specialist at Penn Medicine's Scheie Eye Institute. He affirmed the importance of "educating the public about the necessity of a regular eye exam," but because "funding to the CDC is going down, it's going to be harder for broad messages to be sent out."

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