The numbers are eye opening.
According to the National Eye Institute:
- 2.1 million Americans have advanced age-related macular degeneration; an estimated 3.7 million will have it by 2030.
- 2.7 million Americans have glaucoma; that number is expected to grow to 4.3 million by 2030.
- 7.7 million Americans have diabetic retinopathy; an estimated 11.3 million will have it by 2030.
- 24 million Americans have a cataract; an estimated 38.7 million will be so affected by 2030.
With the steady increase in the number of Americans impacted each year, the question becomes: What's causing such serious eye problems? What are the treatments? What’s the outlook?
The answers depend on the disease, according to local ophthalmologists.
“Cataracts are very common among baby boomers,” said Dr. Jonathan Buka, an ophthalmologist on staff at Community Hospital in Munster. “It is an age-related disease, in that the clouding of the eye's natural lens occurs with age.
The good news is that surgical treatment of cataracts has improved in the last several years, added Dr. Suri Dwarakanathan, an ophthalmologist from Helix Eye Care in Schererville. “New (intraocular lenses) are being developed all the time to make the surgery less complicated for surgeons, and the lenses are more helpful to patients," he said.
IOLs are clear, plastic lenses implanted in the eye after the clouded lens is removed. Thanks to technology advancements, the lenses can help a patient see better at all distances, not just one, like previous IOLs. A new type of IOL can even block ultraviolet and blue light rays, which can damage the retina.
“Cataract surgery is very quick and painless,” Buka said. “Most of my surgeries are in the 10-to-15-minute range. And recovery is relatively quick. People can resume normal activities after a day or two.”
According to Review of Ophthalmology, an estimated 3.6 million successful cataract surgeries are performed annually. Laser technology has helped make the incisions smaller, reducing healing time and the chance of infection.
Dr. Rand Diab, an ophthalmologist at Franciscan Health hospital in Munster, deals with many patients suffering from glaucoma. “Glaucoma is a group of related eye disorders that cause damage to the optic nerve that carries information from the eye to the brain,” she said. “In its early stages, glaucoma usually has no symptoms, which is what makes it so dangerous.”
By the time that most patients notice vision problems from glaucoma's increased pressure in the eye, the disease may have caused irreversible vision loss. Untreated, glaucoma can lead to blindness.
“That’s why screening for glaucoma is so important,” emphasized Dwarakanathan. “Even if a patient believes that their vision is perfectly fine, trouble may be happening behind the scene. So it is critical to get an annual eye exam.”
An optometrist or an ophthalmologist can test for glaucoma as part of an annual eye wellness exam. The test is quick, painless and effective.
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Treatment can involve surgery, lasers or medication, depending on the severity of the glaucoma. “Medicated eye drops aimed at lowering eye pressure usually are tried first,” Diab said. “In many cases, the medication can reduce the pressure on the eye and prevent the issue from worsening.”
Ophthalmologists recommend that patients store their eye drops in the refrigerator, so they can feel the cold drop and know it entered the eye. And the doctors stress continuous use of the drops especially because glaucoma's painlessness can create complacency.
Dr. Vivek Chaturvedi is a member of the Illinois Retina Association, with offices in UChicago Ingalls Memorial Hospital in Harvey. His specialty is diseases of the retina. “There are two main retina-related diseases,” he explained. “Diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration.”
Diabetic retinopathy, as the name states, threatens vision from retinal damage caused by diabetes. It is the leading cause of blindness among working-age Americans.
“Both type 1 and 2 diabetes can result in diabetic retinopathy,” Chaturvedi said. “The complications from diabetes can lead to blood vessel damage and leakage in the eye. In some instances, the eye will grow additional blood vessels, which is not a good thing.”
Blood vessel damage can cause permanent retina harm, including detachment. Though reattachment surgery has a high success rate, the loss of vision due to blood vessel damage remains.
“The good news for many patients is that diabetic retinopathy often can be prevented with early detection, proper management of your diabetes and routine eye exams,” Chaturvedi said.
Injection of corticosteroids or other medications into the eye is the most common treatment. Chaturvedi said that, in some cases, laser procedures can have good results. “In some cases, a combination of drug injections and laser treatment may be recommended," he said.
Once again, early detection through an annual eye exam is critical to minimizing damage.
Macular degeneration is a deterioration of the small central area of the retina that determines the ability to see fine detail.
“Due to our aging population, the number of people affected continues to increase,” Buka said of the age-related disease.
Chaturvedi said there are two types of macular degeneration: “Dry AMD and wet AMD. Dry AMD is related to the aging and thinning of the macula." In wet AMD, new blood vessels grow under the retina and leak.
Dry AMD can be treated with over-the-counter vitamins that contain lutein and reduce vision loss.
Several FDA-approved medications are available by prescription to treat wet AMD. “We can also treat patients with eye injections, like diabetic retinopathy,” said Dwarakanathan. “There’s been progress for treatment of both types of macular degeneration.”
These ophthalmologists all stressed the importance of an annual eye exam that includes dilating the pupils, especially for those older than 50. Family history and current health issues should also be taken into consideration.