August 23, 2004.
BY SARAH KELLOGG,
Newhouse News Service.
WASHINGTON -- Researchers and doctors believe the nation is on the brink of an epidemic of blindness. The chief cause of this looming epidemic? Age.
As baby boomers hit their golden years in record numbers, and the seniors who are already there live longer, scientists expect a dramatic increase in serious vision problems.
"Most of the major eye diseases are age-related," said Dr. Frederick Ferris, clinical director of the National Eye Institute, the federal government's top vision research agency. "For glaucoma, macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy -- aging is by far the most important risk factor for these leading causes of blindness."
Blindness or serious vision impairment affects 3.3 million Americans ages 40 and older. By 2020, researchers expect that figure to reach 5.5 million.
Scientists say it makes sense that eyes, like knees and hips, wear with age.
"While most people have good vision and their eyes are healthy, we should not take good vision and healthy eyes for granted," said Dr. Paul Lichter, dean of the school of ophthalmology at the University of Michigan's Kellogg Eye Center. "As we get older, the risk of getting a disease becomes greater."
Cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma or age-related macular degeneration rank as the most likely culprits in impairing vision or causing blindness among individuals 60 or older.
Cataracts are the most common problem. By the age of 65, more than 90 percent of people have a cataract, experts say. A cataract is the clouding of the eye's lens. Symptoms include blurry vision, double vision and a sensitivity to light and glare. A simple surgical procedure can eliminate the cataract.
Diabetic retinopathy is characterized by changes in blood vessels in the retina due to diabetes. The damaged blood vessels result in blurred vision and eventual blindness. While there is no cure, researchers say early intervention can limit damage.
Glaucoma is a condition in which high pressure caused by a buildup of fluid in the eye can damage nerve fibers, causing blind spots in the field of vision. The damage is permanent.
Macular degeneration is the breakdown of the macula, a small area at the back of the eye that allows the eyes to complete detail work such as threading a needle or reading. Symptoms include distorted vision and an inability to see objects clearly. Recent studies on the use of antioxidants and zinc have shown promise in limiting damage.
The proposed National Eye Institute budget for fiscal 2005, which is pending in Congress and would take effect on Oct. 1, includes an additional $19 million next year to bring its annual appropriation to $672 million.
Between 1998 and 2003, the overall National Institutes of Health budget doubled due to congressional efforts to improve health research funding. But NEI funding did not double despite what researchers describe as a growing need. If it had, it would be at $711 million annually.
"The NEI is in the bottom one-third of all the institutes in meeting its budget-doubling goal," said James Jorkasky, executive director of the National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research, which lobbies for research funding on Capitol Hill. "Some other institutes, because of public exposure, have seen their funding meet and exceed the budget-doubling goal. Vision-related illness is a major public health problem with the aging populations and it deserves to be studied."
Meanwhile, doctors say individuals can act to protect their vision. The first thing, especially for people 60 and older, is to visit an ophthalmologist each year.
In addition, doctors recommend that safety glasses be worn whenever working near sharp objects, as when using a hammer to pound a nail.
Doctors also say it's important to use sunglasses or other ultraviolet protection when out in the sun for extended periods.
"There are things we can do to help prevent vision loss if we start early," Ferris said. "With aggressive treatments, even if you develop these problems, there are things we can do about all of them, and cataracts we can virtually cure."
(Sarah Kellogg can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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