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The Future's Looking Dim

Aging baby boomers means number of blind or visually impaired Americans to double in 30 years

WEDNESDAY, March 20, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- All you aging baby boomers better keep a close eye on your eyes.

The number of Americans who are blind or visually impaired is expected to double over the next 30 years as the boomers grow older and start to be afflicted with age-related eye disease, says a new report.

More than 1 million Americans aged 40 and older are blind, and another 3.4 million are visually impaired, says the report. It's being released today by the National Eye Institute and Prevent Blindness America, a national volunteer eye health and safety organization.

"Age-related eye disease is going to be an enormous burden from many standpoints," says Betsy van Die, media relations director for Prevent Blindness America.

There's the obvious toll on individuals who suffer eye disease and the family members who have to help them. Then, there's the economic impact, she says.

The current estimated annual cost of blindness and vision problems in the United States is $4 billion in benefits and lost taxable income -- and that will continue to escalate as the baby boomer generation ages, she adds.

The new report contains data collected from a review of major epidemiological studies, and provides the most comprehensive information available on the prevalence of eye disease in America.

"Until now, we haven't had good numbers. This is the first time we've put together what we think are accurate numbers to indicate the risks of these various diseases and blindness," says Dr. Frederick Ferris, clinical director at the eye institute.

It's essential for the nation's leaders to understand the scope of eye problems in the country so adequate resources can be devoted to research, treatment and prevention, Ferris adds.

"The people who are making decisions about what to fund and when to fund it like to know what the magnitude of the problem is," he says.

Some of the major causes of blindness and vision impairment in the United States are:

  • Diabetic retinopathy: It affects more than 5.3 million Americans age 18 and older.
  • Age-related macular degeneration (AMD): More than 1.6 million Americans aged 60 and older have advanced AMD, and it's the most common cause of blindness and vision loss in that age group.
  • Cataracts: These affect almost 20.5 million Americans aged 65 and older.
  • Glaucoma: About 2.2 million Americans aged 40 and over have been diagnosed with this disease, but another 2 million don't know they have it.

Despite the predicted dramatic increase in blindness and vision impairment over the next three decades, van Die says this report isn't meant to frighten the boomers.

"I don't know if they need to be alarmed, but I think one of the things is they should be aware of prevention," she says.

That starts with something as simple as annual visits to your eye doctor, she adds. Blindness and visual impairment caused by many eye diseases can be reduced with early detection and treatment.

Most cases of glaucoma can be controlled, and vision loss slowed or halted by medications, laser treatments or surgery. Cataracts can be treated by removal of the clouded eye lens, which is usually replaced with an artificial lens.

Your overall physical health is another important factor, van Die says.

For example, diabetic retinopathy is a common complication of diabetes, which also increases the risk of other eye diseases such as cataracts and glaucoma.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 10.3 million Americans have diagnosed diabetes, and an additional 5.4 million Americans have undiagnosed diabetes.

What To Do

You can get more information about eye diseases, along with prevention and treatment, at Prevent Blindness America or the National Eye Institute.

SOURCES: Betsy van Die, media relations director, Prevent Blindness America, Schaumberg, Ill.; Frederick Ferris, M.D., clinical director, National Eye Institute, Bethesda, Md.; March 20, 2002, Vision Problems in the U.S.
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