FloridaTrend.com, the Website for Florida Business


Eye Opener

As the U.S. population ages, researchers are racing to find cures for the most common eye conditions people face in their later years, including cataracts and macular degeneration.

Cataracts

"Cataracts are exceedingly common," especially among people in their 60s and older, says Dr. James Banta, assistant professor of clinical ophthalmology for the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute at University of Miami.

Cataract symptoms start with a gradual decrease in vision. Patients notice a glare from lights when they're driving at night. They have difficulty reading when the lighting isn't correct. Eventually everything takes on a brownish shade. Today the only way to get rid of the symptoms is to surgically remove the cloudy lens and replace it with an artificial lens. Patients usually recover within a few days.

Eye researchers are seeking a way to eliminate the need for glasses after cataract surgery -- a cure Banta describes as the "holy grail of ophthalmology." Doctors have developed lenses that can be implanted after cataract removal to help the patient see both up close and at distances, but "the technology is eight to 10 years away from being perfected," he says.

"I think when that occurs, it will be a really exciting change."

Macular degeneration

Another age-related disorder, macular degeneration causes gradual blurring of sharp central vision. Patients notice increasing blurriness and distortion in the center of their vision, or eventually a hole or black spot in the vision. They might notice letters missing on a page when they're reading. It especially affects people over 65 with fair skin and light-colored eyes.

Little treatment is available, although some patients are finding success with a combination of vitamins that seem to decrease the severity of macular degeneration, Banta says.

A promising development, and one the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute is researching, is a new class of medicines that can be injected directly into the eye. "It's not a cure-all, but it's giving us better results than what we've used up until now," Banta says.

Other ailments

Some people experience other eye ailments as they age, including glaucoma. Symptoms include a gradual loss of peripheral vision. Caused by a buildup of fluid inside the eye that damages the optic nerve, glaucoma can lead to partial vision loss or blindness.
Another ailment is "floaters," or the appearance of shadows that drift in and out of the field of vision, which are caused by changes of the vitreous jelly inside the eye. These are exceedingly common, Banta says. But a sudden shower of black floating spots and flashes of light could signal a detached retina and should be treated as an emergency with a visit to the doctor to prevent permanent vision loss, he says.

Banta recommends two things for people who want to be proactive with their vision care. The first is to wear sunscreen and sunglasses. Floridians exposed to ultraviolet rays from sunlight every day are at higher risk of not only speeding up cataracts and macular degeneration but also developing skin cancer around the eye. The second is to undergo regularly scheduled eye examinations. Most people can get by with full ophthalmic exams every four or five years until their mid-20s, but the frequency should increase after that to every two to three years until the 40s and every year after that, especially for people over 65.

STATS

Florida
? 3.42% have vision impairment or blindness

National
? 17% have cataracts**Adults age 40 and over
? 7.6% have age-related macular degeneration*
? 1.9% have glaucoma*

Source: National Eye Institute

In the U.S.
? 14 million people have severe visual conditions not correctable by glasses.
? 11 million people experience corneal disorders such as herpes and dry eye.
? 10 million people suffer visual loss caused by macular degeneration.
? Age-related macular degeneration is the chief cause of blindness among Americans over 50 -- and south Florida has the largest concentration of AMD patients over age 65.
? 45.5 million people have cataracts that obstruct vision.
? 42 million people are visually impaired from glaucoma.
? 41 million people are legally blind.

On the web: www.nei.nih.gov.

Sources: National Eye Institute, Bascom Palmer Eye Institute