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Vision Problems Rising Rapidly in the U.S.

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Dec. 11, 2012 -- The diabetes and obesity epidemics may be fueling a dramatic rise in the number of people with vision problems, a new study suggests.

Rates of vision problems that can’t be treated with glasses or contact lenses, known as nonrefractive vision problems, increased by 21% between two survey periods: 1999 to 2002 and 2005 to 2008. The findings suggest that as many as 700,000 more people developed these types of vision problems in a short amount of time.

Nonrefractive vision problems include glaucoma, macular degeneration, cataracts, and diabetes-related eye disease. They are caused by underlying diseases. Many of these diseases are age-related and would not be expected to increase among young people. Diabetes, however, is occurring in younger and younger people.

“The increasing diabetes prevalence in the U.S. is leading to more vision loss,” says researcher David S. Friedman, MD, PhD, MPH. He is the director of the Dana Center for Preventive Ophthalmology at the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute and Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. “We have to recognize that this is a large public health problem so we can start developing methods to deal with it.”

The findings appear in the Dec. 12 issue of the Journal of American Medical Association.

Friedman and colleagues analyzed data from a large national database in 1999-2002 and 2005-2008. Participants aged 20 or older answered questions and underwent lab tests and physical exams.  

Those most at risk were older, poorer, had less education, and had diabetes for 10 or more years. The only one of these risks that increased between the two surveys was a history of diabetes.

More Vision Problems to Come

“The number of people who have had diabetes for more than 10 years has more than doubled in the last six or seven years,” Friedman says. The new findings are likely just the tip of the iceberg. If current diabetes rates continue, “we will see more and more people with diabetes and vision impairment.”

Preventing diabetes in the first place is key to preserving vision, he says. This includes losing weight (if necessary), eating a healthier diet, and getting regular exercise. But, he says, “if you have diabetes, make sure get your eyes checked, as this type of vision loss is preventable.”

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