The sense of sight is so precious that Americans fear blindness more than the loss of memory, hearing or speech. Blindness ranks alongside cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and HIV/AIDS as among the “worst things that could happen” to someone. Many say their ability to see is more important than how long they live.
Even so, as we observe World Sight Day today, many Americans are endangering their vision. Despite their fear of blindness, half of the 61 million adults in the United States at high risk for serious vision loss have not had a comprehensive eye exam — the best way to detect sight-stealing eye diseases — in the past 12 months.
This failure to make eye and vision health a priority carries a high price. Cases of blindness and serious visual impairment (20/40 or worse, after correction) in the United States are projected to double to more than 8 million by 2050, according to the National Institutes of Health. Texas alone will be coping with more than a half million cases of blindness and serious visual impairment by midcentury.
Call it a consequence of living longer. Blindness and visual impairment are ever-growing due to an aging U.S. population and the increasing prevalence of four diseases that cause vision loss as we age — cataracts, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration.
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The human and economic costs of these diseases are profound. Imagine being unable to see a computer screen, the food on your dinner plate, the face of your grandchild or the first spring bluebonnets. Consider the possibility of losing your independence and having to rely on others to shop, travel or even locate a restroom in a public place. As one patient recently wrote, blindness is enveloping. It makes life infinitely more difficult, often leading to anxiety, social isolation and loneliness, particularly as we age.
The human toll aside, the costs of poor vision inflict a substantial economic impact on individuals and society. Poor vision can compromise an individual’s education, literacy, employment and personal safety. Already, adult eye disorders and vision loss cost Texas taxpayers about $9.5 billion annually, a figure that’s poised to skyrocket with the incidence of vision problems.
Aging is inevitable, but blindness and visual impairment don’t have to be. About 80 percent of blindness and visual impairment can be prevented or cured. Unfortunately, Americans are unaware of the diseases and factors that threaten their vision and how they can reduce their risk. They skip regular eye exams, reasoning that they’re having no problems driving, seeing their iPhones or watching the Cowboys defeat the Eagles. But many sight-stealing diseases have subtle or no symptoms and can go unnoticed. In other words, a person with normal vision can still have early-stage eye disease. Many people are lulled into complacency by myths and misinformation about eye diseases.
The key to preventing loss of sight is detecting eye diseases as early as possible. Individuals who take their eyesight for granted can discover too late that their vision is slipping away. To set the record straight: cataracts are not preventable, and you do not have to have diabetes to develop glaucoma. Sadly, vision lost to glaucoma is irreversible, but treatment can slow or halt this symptom-free disease. Cataracts are the leading cause of vision loss in older Americans, but also one of the most curable. A 20-minute outpatient surgery can restore vision back to normal in most patients.
It’s no surprise that vision benefits play a key role in motivating Americans to seek regular vision care. Although 8 out of 10 employers offer vision benefits as part of standard health insurance packages, only half of Americans have vision benefits today.
Surveys show those who lack vision coverage typically skip eye exams because of the cost. About 6,000 people who can’t afford treatment receive low-cost or free care each year at Community Eye Clinic in downtown Fort Worth. Nearby, at Cornerstone Cataract Clinic, no-cost cataract surgery is available to uninsured and underinsured patients. Alcon has supported both clinics through financial as well as product and equipment donations.
Eye health is a crucial part of overall health care at every age and stage of life. From preschoolers to seniors, eye and vision care are necessary for vision that lasts a lifetime.
On this World Sight Day, commit to seeing an eye doctor for a comprehensive eye exam at least every two years. It’s the only way to prevent what for many of us is the worst that could happen, the loss of our precious sense of sight.
F. Michael (Mike) Ball is the chief executive officer of Alcon, the Fort Worth-based eye care division of Novartis AG.