Blacks at greater risk for developing cataracts

March 01, 2004

SAN FRANCISCO - For the first time, a nine-year population study has demonstrated that persons of African descent have nearly twice the incidence of cataracts than Caucasians. In addition, the risk of a certain type of cataract was more than three times higher in blacks than in whites. These are the major findings of a study appearing in the March 2004 issue of Ophthalmology, the clinical journal of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the Eye M.D. Association.

After a follow-up period of nine years, nearly 3,000 participants of the Barbados Eye Studies were examined for incidence and progression of cataracts. A cataract is an opacity or cloudiness that develops in the crystalline lens of the eye. Overall, cataracts developed 1.8 times more frequently in the black than in the white participants. Further, the incidence of one particular type of cataract, cortical cataract, was more than three times greater in blacks than in whites.

M. Cristina Leske, MD, MPH, first author of the Stony Brook University-led study, said, "The three-fold risk of cortical cataracts in the black population, documented after careful follow-up, is a new finding. The increased risk could be related to a high frequency of diabetes, hypertension and abdominal obesity, which have been previously identified as risk factors for this type of cataract. This study highlights the serious public health problem of cataract, especially affecting black populations. To prevent visual loss due to cataract, cataract surgery should be provided when needed."

According to the National Eye Institute and Prevent Blindness America, "cataract is the leading cause of blindness in the world, and affects nearly 20.5 million Americans age 40 and older." Even though cataract surgery is the most successful ophthalmic procedure, cataracts still cause a substantial amount of visual impairment in the United States and throughout the world. This is especially true for people over the age of 65 who lack access to needed eye care.

Academy spokesperson Richard H. Lee, MD, a comprehensive ophthalmologist in Oakland, Calif., said, "This study points up the public health issue of limited access to health care among the black population. Since little can be done to prevent the development of cataracts, surgical treatment is the only real solution. Unfortunately, if treatment is put off, cataracts become more advanced and complications may become more prevalent when treatment is finally obtained."

So what should people do? EyeCare America, the Academy's public service foundation, offers multiple eye care programs, for which individuals may qualify. Callers will be automatically screened to determine the program that provides the most appropriate eye care services. Eligible seniors who have not seen an ophthalmologist in three or more years may be able to receive a referral for eye care at no out-of-pocket cost for up to one year. The EyeCare America Helpline is 1-800-222-EYES (3937).
-end-
This study was supported by a grant from the National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology is the world's largest association of eye physicians and surgeons--Eye M.D.s--with more than 27,000 members. For more information about eye health care, visit the Academy's partner Web site, the Medem Network, at www.medem.com/eyemd. To find an Eye M.D. in your area, visit the Academy's Web site at www.aao.org.

American Academy of Ophthalmology

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