The latest findings from the Los Angeles Latino Eye Study (LALES), reported in the May issue of American Journal of Ophthalmology, show that Latino patients have the highest rates of developing visual impairment, blindness, diabetic eye disease and cataracts of any ethnic group in the country.

LALES is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive study of vision in Latinos. In its current phase, researchers followed more than 4,600 Latino patients over four years. Patients were mainly of Mexican descent, over the age of 40, and from La Puente, in Los Angeles.

Researchers found that, over the four years of the study, patients developed visual impairment and blindness at the highest rate of any ethnic group in the country, compared to estimates from other U.S. population-based studies. Nearly 3% of Latino patients developed some sort of visual impairment, and 0.3% developed blindness in both eyes. Of those patients over age 80, 19.4% developed visual impairment and 3.8% became blind in both eyes.

Also of note: Those patients who began the study with visual impairment in one eye were very likely to develop it in the fellow eye. For example, more than half of the participants who began the study with diabetic retinopathy in one eye developed it in the other eye.

Overall, Latinos are more likely to develop diabetic retinopathy than non-Hispanic whites. During the course of the study, 34% of patients who had diabetes developed diabetic retinopathy—Latinos between the ages of 40 and 59 did so at the highest rate. Latinos who had the disease longer were more likely to develop retinopathy. And, of those who began the study with diabetic retinopathy, 39% had worsened by the end of the study.

Latinos are also more likely to develop cataracts in the center of the lens rather than the edge. Researchers attributed many of these changes to age, because 50% of those Latino patients over the age of 50 developed cataracts in the center of the lens.

But, Latino patients did demonstrate lower rates of early and late age-related macular degeneration. Less than 8% developed early AMD and less than 1% developed late AMD; however, patients’ risk increased as they aged.

“This study showed that Latinos develop certain vision conditions at different rates than other ethnic groups,” says Rohit Varma, M.D., M.P.H., principal investigator of LALES. “These results underscore the importance of Latinos—especially those with diabetes—getting regular, dilated eye exams to monitor their ocular health.”