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Older people are at increased risk of several eye diseases, including age-related macular degeneration (AMD), cataracts, and glaucoma. AMD can cause profound loss of central vision due to the breakdown of the eye's light-sensing cells in the retina. Cataracts cloud vision through clumping of proteins in the eye's lens. Glaucoma damages the optic nerve often due to increased pressure in the eye. The increase in type 2 diabetes, which is more common in older Americans and especially minorities, means many more are at high risk for diabetic retinopathy, a disease that impairs vision due to diabetes-related injury to the eye's blood vessels.
As a part of the National Institutes of Health, the NEI conducts and supports research of blinding eye diseases, visual disorders, mechanisms of visual function, preservation of sight, and the special health problems and requirements of the blind.
The importance of early identification of age-related eye disease cannot be overstated. Early stages of these diseases often have no symptoms, which is why dilated eye exams are crucial to catching eye disease before permanent vision loss occurs. People who experience a sudden change in vision, such as blurriness, should see a doctor immediately.
Due to the efforts of the NEI and others, during the past decade treatments for common eye diseases have substantially improved.
Two new drugs, Lucentis and Avastin, are the first AMD treatments capable of improving vision. The NEI, through the Comparison of AMD Treatments Trials (CATT), has helped patients and their doctors choose the best treatment and dosing regimen for AMD. The CATT showed that Avastin-a cancer drug used off-label to treat AMD-was just as effective as Lucentis, which was specifically developed for treating AMD. The trial also showed both drugs were effective when given monthly or as-needed, based on examination of the eye.
The NEI Lens and Cataract Program is helping to understand how cataracts form and finding ways to prevent them. Cataracts are effectively treated in the developed world with surgery to replace clouded lenses. Cataract surgery, however, is not without risks and often unavailable in the developing world where cataracts are a leading cause of blindness.
The NEI-funded Collaborative Initial Glaucoma Treatment Study (CIGTS) and the Early Manifest Glaucoma Trial (EMGT) have helped doctors identify the best approaches to treating glaucoma. CIGTS found that in most cases surgery was no better than medicated eye drops for reducing eye pressure. The EMGT found that early treatment of glaucoma delays disease progression.
The Diabetic Retinopathy Clinical Research Network, supported in part by the NEI, showed that Lucentis, used in combination with laser therapy, was better at treating diabetic retinopathy than standard laser treatment alone.
The NEI supports public health outreach efforts, and the distribution of eye-related health information to the public. The NEI National Eye Health Education Program (NEHEP) Vision and Aging program provides health professionals tools and guidance for educating older adults about maintaining their sight. The See Well for a Lifetime Toolkit helps those working with older adults communicate the importance of preventing eye problems and managing vision loss.
On World Sight Day 2011, I encourage Americans to consider how much we rely on vision for work, leisure, and daily living and to recognize the importance of protecting our eyes to last a lifetime.
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World Sight Day 2011 is sponsored by VISION 2020, a global initiative for the elimination of preventable blindness. World Sight Day 2011 aims to raise public awareness of blindness and vision impairment and stimulate funding for blindness prevention programs. For more information about World Sight Day, visit www.vision2020.org.
For more about the NEI or to obtain eye health information, including the NEHEP Vision and Aging program materials, visit www.nei.nih.gov.