AGING POPULATION, CHRONIC DISEASES FUEL RISE IN DEBILITATING CASES OF 'LOW VISION'

August 30, 2006

Millions of Americans are sidelined by incurable low vision, leaving everyday tasks -- like doing laundry, reading a novel and cooking dinner -- challenging.  Though the condition mainly afflicts the elderly, younger Americans are increasingly at risk of irreversible vision loss, particularly as cases of diabetes -- whose side effects may include low vision -- continue to rise, says the Wall Street Journal. 

The debilitating vision impairment isn't correctable with eyeglasses or surgery and typically is caused by diseases such as macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataract and diabetic retinopathy, says the Journal.

  • As the U.S. population rapidly ages, the number of visually impaired Americans age 40 and over -- including the blind -- is expected to jump two-thirds in the next two decades, to 5.5 million from about 3.3 million, according to the National Eye Institute (NEI).
  • The institute says injuries and the lack of mobility caused by low vision cost the government about $4 billion a year in benefits and lost taxable income.
  • Those affected often sink into depression, suffer hip fractures and other injuries, and become socially isolated, as their movements become more awkward and familiar faces are harder to recognize. 

Not much can be done to prevent the diseases that lead to low vision, but experts say not smoking, an early diagnosis and a diet rich in antioxidants such as zinc and vitamins A and C may help slow the loss of eyesight.  Vision rehabilitation therapy is also crucial in helping those with low vision lead independent lives, says the Journal.

The rising epidemic of obesity and diabetes also troubles vision specialists because it can lead to glaucoma -- which breaks down optic nerve cells, causing tunnel vision -- and diabetic retinopathy, which the NEI estimates will affect 1 in 12 diabetes patients. 

Source: Bryan Keogh and Shivani Vora, "Aging Population, Chronic Diseases Fuel Rise in Debilitating Cases of 'Low Vision,' " Wall Street Journal, August 29, 2006.

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