Good news for eye doctors and other professionals who’ve worked to mitigate growth in age-related vision loss: rates are declining despite the inevitable aging of the population. A recent study identified trends in prevalence of vision impairment among older Americans to determine how vision impairment differs among gender, age and race/ethnicity. The researchers found that the prevalence of serious vision impairment among older Americans declined significantly from 2008 to 2017, with steeper declines seen among African Americans and Hispanic Americans than non-Hispanic white Americans.

The secondary analysis included 10 years of annual nationally-representative data from the American Community Survey, which included 5.4 million adults aged 65+ living in communities or institutions. The investigation asked, “Is this person blind or does he/she have serious difficulty seeing even when wearing glasses?”

The researchers found that the prevalence of serious vision impairment in this population declined from 8.3% to 6.6% over the study period. They noted that if rates had remained at the 2008 level, there would have been an additional 848,000 elderly Americans with serious impairment in 2017.

When controlled for age, sex and race/ethnicity, the researchers found that women had a 2.1% per year decline in the odds of vision impairment, representing a 21% decline over the decade under review. Men had a 9% decline over the same time period. When they adjusted for education level, the decline among women was 13%, and this was completely attenuated in men. Most of the decline was seen in Americans over 75 years. Over the course of the decade, the researchers reported that racial/ethnic disparities narrowed.

“Although this study reports positive news, the older American population is expected to continue to rise from 16.9% to 23.4% between 2020 and 2060,” the researcher wrote in their paper. “If the prevalence of visual impairment doesn’t continue to decline, there will be a massive increase in utilization of eye care services, driven by the expansion of the older population. Furthermore, it’s anticipated that as population aging continues, workforce shortages may arise within the health care system due to both increased demands from the aging Baby Boom cohort, as well as decreased supply of licensed health care providers as they retire. This concern is evident within the field of ophthalmology in which the rate of increase in patients requiring eye care services is expected to vastly exceed that of the growth of practicing ophthalmologists.”

Deng Z, Fuller-Thomson E. Temporal trends over a decade of serious vision impairment in a large, nationally representative population-based sample of older Americans: gender, cohort and racial/ethnic differences. Ophthalmic Epidemiology. February 28, 2021. [Epub ahead of print].