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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 Report.

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.

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