Baby Boomers Going Blind?

Pakistani rescue workers remove the dead body from the site of suicide car bombing in Lahore, Pakistan on Wednesday, May 27, 2009. AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary

The aging of the large baby boom generation could mean a doubling in the number of blind Americans because growing older is a major factor in developing eye disease, a National Eye Institute study says.

Regular eye exams could help to prevent much of that vision loss, the leader author of the report, Dr. David S. Friedman, said Wednesday.

"If nothing is done and we just go on the way we're going now, we're going to have a massive increase in the number of visually impaired and blind in America," said Friedman, a professor at the Wilmer Eye Institute of Johns Hopkins University.

Dr. Paul Sieving, director of the National Eye Institute, said that "the longer we live, the more likely we are to develop one of these eye diseases."

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said in a statement that regular eye checkups are essential to prevent vision loss.

The study lists four primary threats:

  • Diabetic retinopathy, a common complication of diabetes in which blood vessels in the retina break, leak or become blocked, impairing vision over time. It affects nearly half of all people with diabetes to some extent and risk increases with age. There are approximately 5.3 million Americans currently affected.

    The report said laser surgery and a procedure called a vitrectomy are effective in treating diabetic retinopathy.

  • Age-related macular degeneration currently affects 1.6 million Americans. It primarily affects the part of the retina responsible for sharp central vision. There are two forms of this disease - dry AMD and wet AMD. AMD is the most common cause of legal blindness and vision impairment in older Americans.

    Currently there is no generally accepted treatment for dry AMD. Laser therapies to destroy leaking blood vessels can help reduce the risk of advancing vision loss in many cases of wet AMD. Research indicates a combination of zinc, beta-carotene and vitamins C and E may also reduce the risk of advanced AMD by 25 percent.

  • Cataract is a clouding of the eye's lens. Most cataracts appear with advancing age, but there are additional factors, such as smoking, diabetes and excessive exposure to sunlight.

    Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness in the world, and affect nearly 20.5 million Americans age 40 and older. By age 80, more than half of all Americans develop cataracts.

    Surgical treatment can eliminate vision loss due to the disease, but cataracts still account for a significant amount of vision impairment in the United States.

  • Glaucoma causes gradual damage to the optic nerve that carries visual information from the eye to the brain. Because the loss of vision is not noticed until significant nerve damage has occurred, as many as half of all people with glaucoma are unaware of it. About 2.2 million Americans age 40 and older have been diagnosed with glaucoma, and an additional 2 million do not know they have it, the report said.

    Most cases can be controlled and vision loss can be slowed or halted by early treatment, but any vision already lost to glaucoma cannot be restored.

    The report was released by the National Eye Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, and Prevent Blindness America, a volunteer eye health and safety organization.
    • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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