In 2015, 3.2 million Americans had visual impairment, meaning that they had 20/40 vision, or worse, when wearing corrective lenses. According to recent census data and studies funded by the National Eye Institute, this number is expected to more than double to over 8 million people by 2050. An additional 16.4 million Americans are predicted to have vision problems due to nearsightedness or farsightedness. The reason for this dramatic increase is because the youngest of the baby boomers will hit 65 by 2029.
Rohit Varma, M.D., director of the University of Southern California’s Roski Eye Institute, Los Angeles, led the research team that is analyzing data about visual impairment today versus predicted visual impairment in the future. The study was published on May 19th in JAMA Ophthalmology. The team estimated that 1 million Americans were legally blind (20/200 vision or worse) in 2015, and 8.2 million had vision problems because of uncorrected refractive errors.
Using data on visual impairment and blindness from six large studies, Varma and his colleagues predicted that Americans with legal blindness will increase by 21 percent each decade to 2 million by 2050. The age group that will be most affected by visual impairment and blindness will be 80 years of age and older. This is due to the fact that advanced age is a primary risk factor for eye diseases such as cataracts, age-related macular degeneration and glaucoma.
Interestingly, non-Hispanic white women represent the largest proportion of people who will be affected by visual impairment and blindness, and the projections are alarming. By 2050, 2.15 million non-Hispanic white women may be visually impaired and 610,000 will be blind. African Americans are currently the second highest proportion of visually-impaired individuals, but Hispanics will step into second position by around 2040. Because Hispanics have higher rates of diabetes, they are at increased risk for diabetic eye disease which can cause permanent vision loss.
African Americans account for the second highest proportion of blindness, due in part to African Americans’ high risk for developing glaucoma. This disease is often not accompanied by pain or symptoms, so it is very difficult to diagnose without regular comprehensive eye exams.
National Eye Institute Director Paul A. Sieving, M.D., Ph.D. responded to Varma’s study saying, “These findings are an important forewarning of the magnitude of vision loss to come. They suggest that there is a huge opportunity for screening efforts to identify people with correctable vision problems and early signs of eye diseases. Early detection and intervention—possibly as simple as prescribing corrective lenses—could go a long way toward preventing a significant proportion of avoidable vision loss” (Source: National Eye Institute).