Blindness and Vision Problems Hit Women Harder
by Jennifer Wider, MD
(Washington DC 6/10/04): No one should take their vision for granted, but
women need to be especially careful when it comes to eye health. Blindness and
other conditions which cause visual impairment take a much more serious toll
on women than men. Two-thirds of all blind or visually-impaired people in the
world are women, according to the Women's Eye Health Task Force at The Schepens
Eye Research Institute, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School.
Women's access to care
is often complicated by their disproportionately lower incomes and greater responsibilities
juggling work and family concerns, according to a 2002 Kaiser Family Foundation
The problem is not limited to underdeveloped countries. In the United States
and other industrialized countries, "a major reason for the disparity is that
women live longer than men and the risk of blindness and visual impairment increases
with age," explains Ilene K. Gipson, Ph.D., professor of ophthalmology at Harvard
and senior scientist at the Schepens Institute. In the developing world, women
of all ages are affected more often than men. "A major cause is that women do
not have access to eye care to the same degree as men do," Gipson said.
Cataracts, which result
when the lens of the eye becomes cloudy, are the leading cause of blindness
worldwide. "More men receive cataract surgery even though there are more women
with cataracts worldwide," according to Gipson. Certain types of cataracts,specifically
the kind that affects the outside of the lens, are seen more often in women.
The discrepancy isn't limited
to cataracts. Other eye diseases are more prevalent in women including trachoma,
an infectious disease, and dry eye syndrome. "Seventy five to eighty five percent
of people with trachoma are women," Gipson said. Trachoma can cause corneal
scarring and if left untreated may lead to blindness.
Dry eye syndrome can lead
to corneal scarring and vision loss. Dry eye syndrome is often linked to autoimmune
diseases such as Sjögren's syndrome. "Since most autoimmune diseases are seen
in women, female hormones probably play a role, but it is not yet clear how
this works," Gipson said.
Because women tend to live
longer, age-related macular degeneration, a disease that blurs central vision
and can lead to vision loss in both eyes, and diabetic retinopathy, a complication
of diabetes that affects the retina and can cause blindness, become issues to
contend with. Lifestyle choices may play a role. "It is now known that the same
risk factors that cause premature death, such as smoking and obesity cause eye
disease as well," Gipson.
Women need to be aware
of their risk. Obesity and diabetes are on the rise, and studies have shown
that diet and nutrition can protect the eyes, as well as the rest of the body.
In terms of age related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy, "women
should not smoke, should maintain an appropriate body weight and if they have
diabetes, should keep their blood sugar levels under control," Gipson cautioned.
For cataracts, trachoma
and dry eye syndrome, early detection and proper treatment are vital. Women
should be aware of the symptoms and discuss them with their doctors.
A yearly eye exam is recommended,
especially for women over the age of 50. Women in their forties should have
their eyes checked every two to four years. Women between the ages of 18-39
should have their eyes checked at least once and your doctor will advise you
on the need for additional exams, if any.
The Society for Women's
Health Research is the nation's only not-for-profit organization
whose sole mission is to improve the health of women through research. Founded
in 1990, the Society brought to national attention the need for the appropriate
inclusion of women in major medical research studies and the resulting need
for more information about conditions affecting women. The Society advocates
increased funding for research on women's health, encourages the study of sex
differences that may affect the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease,
and promotes the inclusion of women in medical research studies. Dr. Donnica
Moore has been a member of the Society since 1990 and is a past member of its
Board of Directors.
Created: 6/10/2004  - Jennifer Wider, M.D.
Reviewed: 6/24/2004  - Donnica Moore, M.D.