Dry Eye Strikes Many Menopausal Women

But new survey finds 84 percent are unaware of the connection

Steven Reinberg

Steven Reinberg

Updated on April 21, 2006

THURSDAY, April 20, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- While 62 percent of older women experience dry eye, only 16 percent know it's linked to menopause, a new survey shows.

"The prevalence of dry eye is very high, and growing," said Phyllis E. Greenberger, president and chief executive officer of the Society for Women's Health Research. "Dry eye impacts the quality of life, as well as the physical health, of 10 million Americans each year."

The survey, which was released Thursday and sponsored by the Society for Women's Health Research, polled 304 menopausal and perimenopausal women about dry eye.

Of those women who had experienced dry eye, only 59 percent had spoken to their doctor about the condition, the survey found. When it came to treatment for dry eye, 58 percent had tried over-the-counter eye drops to ease their symptoms.

Approximately 3.2 million American women over the age of 50 are affected by chronic dry eye, Greenberger said. "For many women, dry eye is related to the change in hormone levels of menopause," she noted.

Since risk of dry eye increases with age, the number of people affected will increase as the population ages. Many more women suffer from dry eye than men. In fact, dry eye is about two to three times more common in women.

Dry eye results from insufficient tear production, excessive tear evaporation, or from the production of toxic tears, which can be caused by inflammation. The condition can be a mild, episodic feeling of discomfort associated with exposure to dry, hot or windy environments. But it can also be a chronic condition that can lead to increased risk of infection or visual impairment. Chronic dry eye can impact the quality of life, interfering with reading, work, using a computer and night driving.

"Dry eye is a part of the aging process for all of us," said Dr. Laurie Barber, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. "Dry eye is a complex and progressive disorder that has many possible causes and contributing factors."

These factors include medications and diseases patients may have, including autoimmune diseases such as lupus. Symptoms may include irritation, burning, stinging, discomfort, grittiness, foreign body sensation, blurred vision and sensitivity to light, Barber said.

"If not treated, persistent visual problems may haunt the patient and decrease the ability to complete daily activities," Barber said.

Treatments for dry eye are based not only on disease, but also on the cause of the disease. There are three main treatment options -- artificial tears, prescription therapies and surgery. One of the latest therapies is a prescription that increases tear production in patients with dry eye resulting from inflammation, Barber said.

In some cases, when inflammation is the cause of dry eye, treatment can include topical cyclosporin, Barber said. In addition, nutrition may play a role in treatment. Recent studies have found that omega-3 fatty acids -- found in fatty fish like mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon -- may also be of benefit in treating the condition, Barber noted.

One expert agrees that dry eye is a growing health problem.

"Dry eye can be caused by conditions such as lacrimal gland disease that affects tear production, or conditions that decrease corneal sensation, such as LASIK eye surgery, long-term contact lens wear and diabetes," said Dr. Jeffrey P. Gilbard, of the Department of Ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School. "About half of diabetics have dry eye."

Dry eye is becoming more common, Gilbard said. "If somebody has sandy, gritty irritation of a foreign body sensation that has been around for more than three months and gets worse as the day goes on, they have dry eye until proven otherwise," he said.

Gilbard, who invented an eye drop and nutritional supplement specifically to treat dry eye, believes using drops and increasing the intake of omega-3 fatty acids, which appear to fight inflammation and increase tear production, is the preferred treatment.

"If you have symptoms of dry eye, you should go to an eye doctor to find out why," Gilbard said.

More information

The National Library of Medicine can tell you more about dry eye syndrome.

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