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People in the United States deal with many eye health problems. Obesity and specific health-related habits have caused an upward trend in the rate of diabetes, which is one contributor to an expected uptick in eye health problems in the coming decades.
The good news is that understanding common eye health problems and getting regular eye exams can help catch many problems early and stop them from seriously impacting your vision.
Eye Disease & Other Eye-Related Problems in the US
These eye diseases and eye-related problems are common in the United States:
This is a group of eye diseases that result from damage to your optic nerve. Glaucoma is often very subtle in its early stages, with many people not even realizing they have developed a problem.
It has no cure, but early detection and intervention can slow degeneration.
The most common type of glaucoma is open-angle glaucoma. It is often the “default” type referenced when this type of eye disease is discussed in the news and scientific literature.
These are the leading cause of blindness worldwide. Researchers believe at least 20.5 million Americans over 40 have a cataract in one or both eyes. If projections are accurate, this number may actually have reached as high as 30.1 million or more as of 2020.
Modern medicine makes treating cataracts with surgery fairly accessible in developed nations. More than 6.1 million Americans have had their lens removed operatively, and surgeons replace the natural lens with a synthetic lens. These lenses can reverse much of the vision loss cataracts cause, although they may not bring vision back to pre-cataract levels.
Age-related macular degeneration
Age-related macular degeneration is an eye disorder that is associated with aging. With advanced age, the eye can deteriorate and its macula grows thinner. Over time, this blurs central vision.
Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of permanent impairment of reading and similar tasks in people over 65.
Wet age-related macular degeneration is less common. It’s caused by abnormal blood vessels growing under the macula. This leads to blood and fluid leakage. It can then cause damage and lead to central vision loss.
Diabetic retinopathy (DR) is a complication caused by diabetes. It’s the leading cause of blindness in American adults.
Diabetes can impact the circulatory system, which can cause complications in the blood vessels of the retina. This can then damage the eye’s light-sensitive tissue, leading to vision problems.
Serious damage from DR is preventable by properly following diabetic protocols and getting regular eye exams if you are diabetic. Despite this, over 4 million Americans have diabetic retinopathy, and almost 1 million of them experience serious vision-threatening symptoms related to it.
The eye has evolved as a “wet” organ, with its natural hydration helping it to function normally and stay protected. Nearly 16 million Americans suffer from dry eye, a condition where the eyes do not produce enough tears to stay wet, or tears otherwise don’t work correctly.
Dry eye comes in different levels of severity and does not represent a major threat to most people affected by it. A person with dry eyes might feel a burning, dry, or itchy feeling in their eyes. More severe cases can cause blurry vision.
This condition is treatable in a number of ways, including with OTC artificial tears, medications, or lifestyle changes.
Miscellaneous eye infections
While there are many types of eye infections, conjunctivitis, infectious keratitis, and infectious endophthalmitis are among the most common.
Conjunctivitis is a very common eye infection that can result in inflammation of the eye. While uncomfortable, it is often viral and may not require treatment to resolve. However, it can sometimes cause vision problems and may require medical intervention if it worsens.
Infectious keratitis and infectious endophthalmitis are both serious eye complications that can result in permanent vision loss.
Infectious keratitis is the infection of the cornea and requires immediate medical intervention to prevent blindness, as it can progress very quickly.
Infectious endophthalmitis is inflammation of the inside of the eye. Bacteria and fungi can both cause it, as well as other kinds of microbes. While rare, it also requires immediate intervention or it can result in blindness or other forms of permanent vision loss.
Visual Impairment & Blindness
Visual impairment and blindness can severely impact overall quality of life, depending on the specific condition and its severity.
About 12 million Americans over 40 have some kind of visual impairment. Additionally, 6.8 percent of children under 18 have been diagnosed with some type of eye condition that impacts their vision.
Notably, vision impairment is a broad category of potential conditions, ranging from mild conditions such as moderate nearsightedness to cases of total blindness. According to the FDA, 4.2 million Americans over 40 dealt with uncorrectable vision impairment as of 2012, and that number is expected to double by 2050.
Partial blindness vs. full blindness
More than 1 million Americans over 40 are considered blind. Almost 3 percent of children under 18 are either blind or considered visually impaired to the point that seeing is difficult even with corrective eyewear. While most people think of blindness as total blindness, these terms are distinct.
Total blindness is the inability to see. Some part (or multiple parts) of the ocular system does not work and prevents the brain from receiving and/or interpreting visual information.
Partial blindness is different, with many people who have partial blindness being what is often called legally blind. These people can receive visual information but not to a level of clarity that allows them to function as most sighted people can.
Partial blindness is a wide spectrum, with some people only able to notice very distinct visual stimuli, such as if a room is dark or lit. Others may have significant holes in their vision or see shapes and colors, but they are blurry to the point that distinguishing them is very difficult.
While the way many people use the term blindness may not cover these individuals, they still deal with many of the same obstacles those with total blindness do. Additionally, many of the same supports, such as braille labels, audio cues for important events, walking aids, and guide animals, can often provide the same level of benefit.
Corneal transplantation is a surprisingly old solution to many corneal diseases, with the first successful transplantation dating back to 1905. If a person has trouble with their cornea, it can be removed, and the complications they have are removed with it. Then, a surgeon can put a synthetic or donated cornea in its place. This can help restore some or most of the patient’s original vision.
Refractive errors are common eye disorders that affect the eye’s ability to focus.
This is more commonly called nearsightedness. This is usually the result of your eye distorting light so it refracts that light in front of your retina instead of on your retina. This makes it difficult to see objects far away, causing them to appear blurry.
Myopia is the most common refractive error, with severe myopia making driving dangerous without some kind of correction.
This is more commonly called farsightedness. Hyperopia is caused by a moderate lack of curvature in the eye or otherwise being too short. Much like myopia, this causes a problem with the way light is focused.
In hyperopia patients, light is focused behind the retina, causing close objects to appear blurry even though they can see distant objects normally. Hyperopia can make reading difficult without corrective eyewear or abnormally large text.
This differs from myopia and hyperopia, as it distorts your vision at all distances. It often occurs along with some level of hyperopia or myopia, as similar problems cause it. The eye’s shape distorts incoming light.
The most common ways to correct refractive errors are prescription lenses, such as glasses and contacts, or LASIK.
Glasses and contact lenses often help people with refractive errors achieve a level of vision equal to or only slightly below what is considered normal vision. These lenses can artificially reshape how light enters the eye, basically distorting it in such a way that the eye’s natural distortions now cause the light to reach the retina correctly.
Laser eye surgery can allow a permanent vision correction solution.
LASIK is a surgical procedure that uses a very precise blade or laser to reshape the eye. This can reduce or completely erase dependency on eyewear, helping light to better reach the retina. In many cases, it may even achieve 20/20 vision, and no further visual correction is necessary.
While any surgery comes with inherent risks, LASIK has incredibly high success rates with the vast majority of patients (99 percent) being happy with the results of their surgery.
Data on Eye Injuries
According to the CDC, as many as 2,000 American workers sustain a job-related eye injury every day, with a third requiring a visit to the hospital. This means more than 730,000 eye injuries occur every year, and that is accounting only for job-related injuries. One hundred of those daily injuries, or about 36,500 every year, result in at least one lost day of work.
This highlights the necessity of eye safety, as the eye is a sensitive organ that cannot easily heal from even moderate damage. While doctors can treat many eye injuries, it is not always possible to fully restore a damaged eye to pre-injury vision.
Even mild scarring can cause permanent distortions to your vision, and any injury also opens up the eye to a risk of infection. An eye infection has the potential to lead to severe complications that, without medical intervention, may lead to permanent vision loss.
Additionally, severe damage to the eye can destroy or permanently damage critical components, leading to vision in that eye being severely reduced or completely lost.
Most Significant Risks to Your Eye Health
Unfortunately, the eye is an organ that doesn’t age well. Your risk of developing an eye condition as you age increases significantly, and it is almost inevitable you will develop at least minor vision problems by 65.
The good news is regular eye exams can help catch symptoms early, and many eye conditions are treatable. Even if you develop a condition that doesn’t have a cure, it is often possible to slow or halt the progression of symptoms, preserving your vision for as long as possible.
Other risk factors for vision issues include autoimmune conditions, which can reduce your eyes’ ability to defend against infection, and wearing contacts, which can expose your eyes to germs and cause eye dryness. Diet can also impact your vision, with vitamin A deficiency potentially causing problems like dry eyes and related complications.
Cisgender women have a greater risk of developing blindness than cisgender men. The reasons for this are complex. They are partially related to women tending to live longer and thus suffer more, statistically, from age-related complications.
Postmenopausal women also have a much higher chance of developing dry eye than men. Cisgender women have a higher risk of developing autoimmune conditions, which can in turn lead to vision complications.
Finding an Eye Doctor
Finding a reliable source of eye care is important, as the eye is one of the most sensitive yet exposed organs in your body. Follow these tips to find a good eye doctor:
- Check your insurance plan to see which doctors are in your network.
- Research covered doctors near you, learning what they charge and what their reputation is like.
- Ask friends or family members for any recommendations they have.
- Visit a few doctors for consultations, and choose the one you feel is the best fit for your needs.
The FDA offers a number of useful recommendations for finding a reliable location and doctor for refractive surgery, which can also more broadly help you find a good doctor for similar procedures.
- Compare your options, as different doctors, facilities, and surgeons may use different procedures and equipment with different costs and rates of success.
- Avoid deciding purely based on cost, as cheaper care may not be as comprehensive as more expensive care. Similarly, expensive care isn’t always better.
- Read all provided materials about any procedure you might undergo, assessing both its potential benefits and risks.
- Be cautious of all advertising. Consider promises that guarantee vision improvement or downplay the risks of procedures to be red flags.
Current State of US Eye Health FAQs
What is the rate of visual impairment among people living in the United States?
About 12 million adults over 40 in the United States have some kind of vision problem. A worldwide study puts the prevalence of visual impairment at an estimated 3.33 percent.
This means the rate of visual impairment in the United States at least roughly seems to track with the overall results of that study, although our rate of impairment may deviate if the obesity epidemic continues and diabetes rates spike, combined with our aging population.
What is the leading cause of blindness?
According to the CDC, cataract clouding is the leading cost of blindness worldwide. Cataracts can occur at any age, including at birth. They are fully treatable with cataract surgery, which can restore vision.
How does sex impact my risk factors?
Cisgender women have a number of factors that can put them more at risk of eye disease. They usually live longer than men, and age can lead to a number of vision complications. They have a higher chance of suffering from autoimmune conditions, which can make the eyes much more vulnerable to infection. Postmenopausal women have a higher risk of dry eye.
What are the most common vision problems in the United States?
Refractive errors, glaucoma, cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy are the most common vision problems in the U.S.
Can you restore lost vision?
This depends on the cause. Most kinds of vision loss are permanent, but early diagnosis and treatment of many conditions can slow the progression of eye diseases that cause vision loss. This can preserve vision for as long as possible.
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Dry Eye. (April 2022). National Eye Institute.
Eye Safety. (July 2013). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fast Facts of Common Eye Disorders. (June 2020). U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Glaucoma. (April 2022). National Eye Institute.
LASIK. (March 2018). U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
What Are the Risks and How Can I Find the Right Doctor for Me? (August 2018). U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Women Face Higher Risk of Blindness Than Men. (April 2017). American Academy of Ophthalmology.
World Blindness and Visual Impairment: Despite Many Successes, the Problem Is Growing. (2017). Community Eye Health Journal.