Blindsided: Vision problems on the rise

The number of blind individuals is on the rise.

According to the National Federation of the Blind statistics, there are currently 1.3 million blind people, of all ages, in the United States. Within a few years, that number is expected to increase substantially, especially among those over 65.

“There’s are all these little trends we are seeing that are impacting us,” said Greg Trapp, executive director for the New Mexico Commission for the Blind.

As the population is growing older, more people are becoming blind due to diabetes, glaucoma, cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. Also, Trapp notes, there is an increasing number of people losing their vision as a result of firearms wounds and other physical accidents — or having complications related to brain cancer or brain tumors.

Nearly 800,000 seniors, ages 65 and over, are blind — and that number is expected to increase to 1.6 million by 2015 and to 2.4 million in the year 2030, according the the federation.

People these days are living longer than ever and they are living past the health of their eyes, Trapp said.

Diabetes is the No. 1 cause of acquired blindness in the U.S., and there are a number of diseases that can occur as a result of diabetes. Diabetic retinopathy, which is a damaging of the retina, is the most common diabetic eye disease. A person with diabetic retinopathy may have swelled blood vessels deep in the eye that may leak or have new vessels appear on the retina. This disease can be detected during a dilated eye exam in which drops are put into the eyes. Although the dilated eye exam leaves patients blurry-eyed and sensitive to light for a few hours, these should be done yearly, especially for those at risk for diabetes and those who already have it, according to the American Optometric Association.

Cataracts, a clouding of the lens of the eye, can develop even in younger people with diabetes. Glaucoma is the increasing of fluids and pressure in the eye, and leads to the loss of vision or optic nerve damage. People with diabetes are twice as likely to develop glaucoma, according to the National Eye Institute’s website, nei.nih.gov.

Another trend that will hit the Commission for the Blind harder in the next few years is the increasing number of children born with optic nerve hypoplasia, also known as septo-optic dysplasia or DeMorsier’s syndrome. Optic nerve hypoplasia is the under-development or absence of optic nerves and its cause it unknown. It has increased about 600 percent in the last 30 years, said Trapp, the executive director for the commission. “No one knows the cause of it; it is kind of a mysterious condition,” Trapp said.

Optic nerve hypoplasia is the leading ocular cause of visual impairment and blindness in young children. Children with this condition range from being totally blind with no light perception, to having relatively good vision. It is not curable, but some children may experience increased vision throughout their early childhood years, according to facts from the The Vision Center at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles website.

About 93,600 school-age children are blind, with 10,800 of those being both deaf and blind, according to the Nation Federation of the Blind website (statistics are from 2002).

“The wave of kids with the condition has yet to wash over us. We see it coming like a tsunami.”

The commission provides technology, employment and aid for the blind and visually impaired during three major stages of life: education, employment and senior care. With a large number of kids born with optic nerve hypoplasia, they will see a bigger demand for their services in years to come, Trapp said – not to mention the Baby Boomers growing older and living past the health of their eyes.

And if people can’t afford proper vision care and exams, letting conditions like glaucoma or diabetic retinopathy go, the situation could get worse, said Dr. Edward Hernandez, opthemologist and owner of Eyes of the Southwest.

“It’s all about getting in to see your eye doctor for annual checkups,” Hernandez said.

Even when a patient develops an eye problem, like glaucoma, they can get treatment, like glaucoma drops to lower the pressure in the eyes, and prevent it from getting any worse. That doesn’t mean they should wait until they notice symptoms — glaucoma is a silent blinder and a person will not know they have until their sight becomes hindered. It also doesn’t matter if a person doesn’t have diabetes — eye health is very important for everyone and anyone can contract these conditions, Hernandez said.

When it comes to cataracts, everyone will get it sooner or later — it’s just a matter of how bad it can get, Hernandez said. There are more than 3 million cataract surgeries performed annually, he said.

People with diabetes should keep their blood sugar, blood cholesterol and blood pressure levels in check and at healthy levels. This will reduce the risk of getting diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma or cataracts. Don’t wait until you have any of these conditions and don’t fall back on knowing that there are a couple of laser surgeries that can be performed to treat these conditions.

~ Andi Murphy

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