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Eye Diseases Rising at Rapid Rates in U.S.

Eye Diseases Rising at Rapid Rates in U.S. Biggest Rises Seen in Diabetic Retinopathy, Age-Related Macular Degeneration WebMD Medical News By Kathleen Doheny Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD More...

June 20, 2012 -- Vision problems -- many of them potentially causing severe vision loss or blindness -- are on the rise in the U.S., according to a new report.

Most dramatic is the rise in diabetic retinopathy, says Jeff Todd, chief operating officer of Prevent Blindness America, which issued the report.

Diabetic retinopathy involves damage to the blood vessels in the retina. It can lead to blindness.

In the past 12 years, it has risen an alarming 89%, Todd tells WebMD. Nearly 8 million people ages 40 and above now have it.

"We suspect that is largely due to the spike in diabetes and the diabetes epidemic we are facing as a country, as well as the increase in Hispanic and African-American populations, which tend to have a higher rate of diabetes," he says.

Another vision problem, age-related macular degeneration, is up substantially, with a 25% increase, Todd says. The macula is the part of the eye that provides sharp, central vision.

More than 2 million age 50 and older are affected now.

The report, titled "Vision Problems in the U.S.," was released today by Prevent Blindness America and the National Eye Institute.

Vision Problem Report Details

These reports are issued periodically, using Census data and new research. For the current update, the researchers compared the current number of Americans with vision problems with the numbers from 2000.

Besides the increases in macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy, they found:

  • A 19% increase in cataracts, with more than 24 million people age 40 and older affected
  • A 22% increase in open angle glaucoma, with nearly 3 million people age 40 and older affected

Cataracts, more common with age, are a clouding of the eye's lens.

Glaucoma is an increase in fluid pressure in the eye. It can damage the optic nerve and lead to blindness.

About 1.3 million Americans are blind, the report says.

Another 2.9 million have low vision. This is a loss of eyesight that makes everyday tasks such as reading difficult.

Another 34 million, ages 40 and older, have myopia, or nearsightedness.

Farsightedness, or hyperopia, affects 14 million age 40 and older.

As the number of Americans with vision problems has been increasing, Todd tells WebMD, funding for research and education programs has been slashed. Last year, the CDC saw its research funding dip from about $3.2 million to about $500,000, he says.

Eye Disease Report: Perspective

The rise in diabetic retinopathy is ''scary," according to Anne Sumers, MD, a clinical correspondent for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. She reviewed the report findings for WebMD.

"It's proof we are in a losing battle," she says. Many of the people affected, she says, are in their prime working years, risking vision loss.

The rise in macular degeneration, she agrees, mirrors the booming aging population.

Protecting Eye Health

Getting regular eye checkups is a good start to protect your eye health, says Sumers, a Ridgewood, N.J., ophthalmologist.

So are regular checkups, especially a check of blood glucose, to be sure you are not in early stages of diabetes, she says.

"Talk to your primary care provider about what you are most at risk for," Todd says.

He notes that ethnic groups differ, in general, in their risk for specific eye diseases.

While whites have a higher risk of macular degeneration than other groups, African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians often have higher rates of glaucoma, he says.

The rates of diabetes are higher in African-Americans and Hispanics than in others, he says.

Lifestyle affects vision problems, too, Todd tells WebMD. Smoking can boost the risk of both cataracts and macular degeneration, he says.

Eating healthy can help your eyes, too, he says.

The full report can be viewed at www.preventblindness.org/visionproblems.

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