Eye disease: U.S. Hispanics at higher risk

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More than 60 percent of eye disease in Latinos is undetected or undiagnosed (Shutterstock photo)

Hispanics suffer more from eye disease than any other ethnic group in the U.S., a fact revealed in past studies funded by the National Eye Institute (NEI). According to NEI, more than 60 percent of eye conditions in Latinos go undetected or undiagnosed.

During the 2004 Los Angeles Latino Eye Study (LALES), the largest, most comprehensive epidemiological analysis of visual impairment in Hispanics conducted in the U.S., NEI found that 3 percent of the more than 6,000 study participants were visually impaired; 25 percent were diabetic, and of those diabetics, 50 percent exhibited symptoms of diabetic retinopathy; 5 percent had glaucoma; and one out of five had a cataract.

“This research has provided much needed data on eye disease among the fastest growing minority group in the United States,” said Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., director of the NIH in a statement.

A smaller NEI study conducted during 2010 showed similar results, indicating out of more than 4,000 primarily Mexican-American study participants, 3 percent developed visual impairment, 34 percent who were diabetic developed diabetic retinopathy, and 19.4 percent of participants 80-years-old or older developed visual impairment.

The high occurrence of eye disease among Latinos is complicated by a lack of knowledge regarding various eye health conditions. The 2005 Survey of Public Knowledge, Attitudes, and Practices found Hispanics are the least likely group to have eye exams; are the least knowledgeable about eye health; have the lowest access to eye health information; yet 72 percent of Latinos feel losing their vision would have the greatest impact on their daily lives.

So what are the common eye-health issues affecting Latinos?

Diabetic retinopathy

Hispanics in the United States suffer disproportionately from diabetes, a fact which puts the demographic at risk for diabetic retinopathy.

According to the National Library of Medicine, diabetic retinopathy is a complication as a result of long-term diabetes. The medical condition occurs when the blood vessels of the retina are damaged, causing changes in how images and light stimuli are sent to the brain. Almost everyone with diabetes for more than 30 years will show some signs of diabetic retinopathy.

Symptoms include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Trouble with night vision
  • Floaters in the eye
  • Missing areas of vision
  • Blurred field of vision

Treatment for diabetic retinopathy cannot reverse the damage that has already been caused, and diabetics are urged to seek frequent vision examinations to prevent loss of sight due to this condition.

Glaucoma

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Individuals with a family history of the disease, or those who have been diagnosed with elevated pressure within the eyes, are also at an increased risk for glaucoma. (Shutterstock photo)

Glaucoma is the term used to describe a group of eye conditions caused by optic nerve damage. The Mayo Clinic indicates abnormally high pressure within the eye is almost always the cause of this condition. With most types of glaucoma, vision loss can be very gradual.

Latinos are at an increased risk for this eye disease as are African-Americans and Asian-Americans. Individuals with a family history of the disease, or those who have been diagnosed with elevated pressure within the eyes, are also at an increased risk for the glaucoma.

Medical experts are not entirely sure what triggers glaucoma to manifest; however, symptoms include:

  • Gradual vision loss, usually in both eyes
  • Tunnel vision
  • Severe eye pain accompanied by nausea and vomiting
  • Halos around lights
  • Blurred vision
  • Redness in the eye
  • Trouble seeing in dim light

Cataracts

Cataracts are another common eye disease found among the Latino population. Defined as a clouding of the lens of the eye, cataracts start off gradually, and won’t interfere with vision until they have become severe.

Cataracts can form as a result of injury or as a natural part of aging, and some cataracts are caused by genetic disorders and environmental factors.

Individuals at a high risk for cataracts include those that smoke, have high blood pressure, are obese, have excessive sunlight exposure, and those who drink alcohol in excess.

People with diabetes are also at an increased risk for cataracts.

Symptoms include:

  • Sensitivity to light
  • Double vision
  • Halos around lights
  • Clouded vision
  • Trouble with night vision
  • Frequently changing eyeglass prescriptions

Why do Latinos have a high prevalence of eye disease?

The NEI data indicates many Hispanics with eye issues were unaware of the fact. This lack of knowledge is just as detrimental to proper eye health as are the underlying conditions—diabetes, obesity, hypertension—leading to many of the diseases.

“Because vision loss can often be reduced with regular comprehensive eye exams and timely treatment, there is an increasing need to implement culturally appropriate programs to detect and manage eye diseases in this population,” said Rohit Varma, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor of ophthalmology and preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine’s Doheny Eye Institute at the University of Southern California, at the time of the 2004 study.

Varma added, “This is especially true when you consider that Latinos, compared with other ethnic groups in the U.S., have a high prevalence of low vision, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma. Overall, Latinos were much more likely to have received general medical care than to have received eye care.”

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