Americans fear vision loss more than they fear cancer, HIV/AIDS, stroke, heart disease, diabetes and other serious health problems, according to a national opinion poll released by the American Foundation for the Blind. We are terrified of an issue that we often know very little about. The only way to face this fear is to become informed about the realities of vision loss.
Worldwide, 285 million people are visually impaired; 39 million are blind and 246 million have low vision. It is estimated that 25 million Americans are blind or visually impaired. Take a look at Prevent Blindness America’s interactive map for a geographic breakdown: Vision Problems in the U.S.
The Vision Loss Spectrum: The word blind is a misleading term. It suggests that someone sees nothing at all. In reality vision loss exists on a vast spectrum. The millions of people who are blind or visually impaired all possess varying degrees of sight and have vastly different needs and abilities related to their sight loss. The reasons behind each of their vision loss and their experiences dealing with it can also be incredibly unique; some people have been completely blind since birth while others may have dealt with slowly declining vision for decades.
Early Detection & Medical Treatment: Though not always the case, blindness is often preventable. 80% of all visual impairment can be avoided or cured. Early detection is key. The first step to combating vision loss is being informed—recognizing early warning signs, getting regular exams, being diagnosed early and receiving proper treatment. Medical advancements have made it so that early detection can prevent or slow down vision loss caused by glaucoma and new treatments exist that can slow down and even potentially restore vision lost due to wet age related macular degeneration. Additionally, the first successful gene therapy trials are underway to treat Leber Congenital Amaurosis, a form of Retinitis Pigmentosa. The therapy was first tried on birds and a French sheepdog and is now restoring sight to patients in clinical trials.
Resources & Help: When medical help is exhausted, there is a great deal of help that can significantly improve the daily lives of those living with vision loss. Many of these individuals are simply unaware of the resources that are available to them often because their own doctors are not relaying the information to them or are uninformed themselves. 70% of visually impaired Americans who could be working are unemployed due to this lack of knowledge. Only 1-2% use a guide dog even though the majority of dogs are provided free of charge, and on the whole, less than 5% of blind and low vision Americans obtain vision rehabilitative services of any kind. This needs to change. A better system of communication needs to be put into place between optometrists, ophthalmologists, low vision specialists, patients, and the general public so that everyone can be made aware of these resources. There are numerous available technologies such as JAWS and KURZWEIL that will read out loud what is on the computer screen and there are computer pads that provide Braille translations of what is on the screen. Low vision specialists and stores can also provide a wide variety of simple products or suggestions for improvements to household items that can greatly increase their functionality for low vision users.
Research & Funding: Although a significant amount of money is spent each year studying and making progress on these issues, much more resources and energy needs to be devoted to the topic. Based on accounts from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which reports the money funded by the NIH and the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (ARRA), in 2010 “Eye Disease and Disorders of Vision” ranked 42nd out of the 229 listed research and disease areas in terms of dollars spent. An estimated $927 million was spent in that year on all research pertaining to eye disease compared to $1,923 million spent on digestive diseases. Because the issues relating to vision loss are so vast, each disease caused by its own specific physical reasons and requiring a unique course of treatment at various stages, much more research needs to be done. Studies have shown that there is a link between vision loss and neurological and psychological problems as well; Therefore, an emphasis must be placed upon facilitating more coordinated research between eye disorders and other fields of study in order to better understand these connections and ultimately vision loss itself.
An Alarming Trend in Vision Loss: Now, more than ever, it is extremely important to seriously consider these issues because the number of people with vision loss is only expected to drastically increase in the coming years due to the growing aging population and the prevalence of diseases like diabetes. Below are the simple facts and trends about some of the most common causes of vision impairment. When put together, the numbers illustrate an alarming trend of an ever-increasing problem for our country as more people face problems with their vision, often without realizing until it is too late. This once again highlights the importance of raising awareness about the issue of prevention and treatment because it is an issue that has the potential to affect us all.
After reviewing the statistics, please visit our Resources to be directed to organizations that can provide you with much more information about any of these diseases, services and more.
Vision Loss by the Numbers:
- By 2015, 1.6 million senior citizens in the United States will be legally blind. By 2030 the number will be 2.4 million, double what it is today.
- Among adults 40 and older, the National Eye Institute estimates that 4.5 to 5.5 million Americans are blind or visually impaired.
- According to Prevent Blindness America’s 2007 study on the economic impact of eye disorders and blindness, the annual costs associated with adult vision problems in the United States is estimated at $51.4 billion.
- This cost will only continue to rise: “In a year  where an estimated 2.8 million baby boomers will celebrate their 60th birthday, age-related eye diseases are becoming increasingly important health issues.”
- Over 4 million Americans have glaucoma but only 50% are aware they have the disease.
- Glaucoma affects more than 2.3 million Americans aged 40 and up.
Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD)
- Over 2 million Americans 50 and older have AMD, an eye disorder associated with aging that damages the central vision needed for common daily tasks such as driving and reading.
- There are two forms of AMD, wet and dry macular degeneration; dry makes up about 70-90% of the cases and progresses more slowly than the wet form.
- Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness and visual impairment among people 65 and up.
- Age-related macular degeneration affects more than 1.75 million individuals in the United States. Owing to the rapid aging of the US population, this number will increase to almost 3 million by 2020.
- Test yourself at home for AMD with the Amsler Grid.
- Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness worldwide in middle and low income countries.
- Cataracts are a leading cause of poor vision in the United States; According to the American Optometric Association, 20.5 million people age 60 and over have cataracts.
- Cataract surgery is the most common outpatient surgery performed in the US. Though this disease is not preventable, it is treatable.
- Risk factors include diseases like diabetes, alcohol or tobacco use and prolonged exposure to sunlight.
Diabetes and Diabetic Retinopathy
- The more overweight and obese children and adults become, the more susceptible they become to developing Type 2 diabetes, a disease which already affects an estimated 25.8 million people, or 8.3 percent of the U.S. population. They all face a risk for diabetic retinopathy.
- Diabetes, and the related complication diabetic retinopathy, is the leading cause of new cases of blindness among adults ages 20–74 years.
- Among U.S. residents ages 65 years and older, 10.9 million, or 26.9 percent, had diabetes in 2010.
- About 215,000 people younger than 20 years had diabetes—type 1 or type 2—in the United States in 2010.
- About 1.9 million people ages 20 years or older were newly diagnosed with diabetes in 2010 in the United States.
- There are an estimated 100,000 people living with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetically inherited disease, in the United States.
- 16% of wounded veterans evacuated from Iraq and Afghanistan have sustained an eye injury.
- There are more than 157,000 legally blind Veterans in the US and over one million suffering from low vision.
- However, only 45,000, approximately one third of blinded US veterans, take advantage of the vision rehabilitation offered by the VA.