WebMD Medical News
Louise Chang, MD
June 29, 2012 -- There has been a dramatic drop in vision impairment among older Americans over the last generation, new research shows.
The prevalence of self-reported eyesight issues that limit activity declined by well over 50% in just two and a half decades, according to data from two nationally representative surveys.
In 1984, close to 1 in 4 older people reported having problems reading newspaper print because of vision loss, compared to 1 in 10 in 2010.
"This is really excellent news," says researcher Angelo P. Tanna, MD, who is vice chair of the department of ophthalmology at Chicago's Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
"The prevalence of activity-limiting visual impairment is decreasing and has been decreasing," he tells WebMD.
Although the study did not explore the reasons for the reduction, Tanna says advances in cataract surgery, declines in smoking, and better treatments for diabetes have all played major roles.
Ophthalmologist Richard Bensinger, MD, tells WebMD that cataract surgery has become routine and complications are now rare.
Bensinger practices in Seattle and is a spokesman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
"A generation ago, people waited until a cataract was so bad that even a bad surgical result was better than the alternative," he says. "These days, most people have surgery at the first sign of visual discomfort."
Just 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. smoke cigarettes today, compared to 1 in 3 in the 1980s.
Smoking is a major risk factor for macular degeneration, which is one of the most common vision diseases in the elderly.
"The prevalence of age-related macular degeneration has gone down, and studies suggest that smoking declines are a big reason for this," Tanna says.
Diabetes is a leading cause of blindness, and age and obesity are leading risk factors for obesity.
Tanna says even though diabetes rates in the U.S. continue to climb, better therapies are now available to prevent and treat diabetes-related vision issues.
"Diabetes patients are getting better care than they did in the past, and this has led to less vision loss among people with this disease."
It is not clear if advances in screening for age-related vision issues have contributed to their decline.
But Bensinger says regular eye exams are important for everyone as they age, especially people with diabetes and other health conditions that can lead to vision loss.
The study appears in the latest issue of the journal Ophthalmology.
SOURCES:Tanna, A.P. Ophthalmology, June 27, 2012.Angelo P. Tanna, MD, vice chair, Department of Ophthalmology, Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago.Richard Bensinger, MD, spokesman, American Academy of Ophthalmology; practicing ophthalmologist, Seattle.News release, Northwestern University News.
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