Visual Impairment, Blindness Cases in U.S. Expected to Double by 2050

National Eye Institute report identifies trends by race, ethnicity, and gender

With the youngest of the “baby-boomers” hitting 65 by 2029, the number of people with visual impairment or blindness in the United States is expected to double to more than eight million by 2050, according to projections by the National Eye Institute (NEI), part of the National Institutes of Health. Another 16.4 million Americans are expected to have difficulty seeing due to refractive errors, such as myopia, that can be corrected with glasses, contact lenses, or surgery.

The analysis, published in JAMA Ophthalmology, was led by Rohit Varma, MD, Director of the University of Southern California’s Roski Eye Institute in Los Angeles. The investigators estimated that one million Americans were legally blind (20/200 vision or worse) in 2015. In addition, 3.2 million Americans had visual impairment in 2015—meaning that they had 20/40 or worse vision with best possible correction. Another 8.2 million had vision problems due to uncorrected refractive error.

“These findings are an important forewarning of the magnitude of vision loss to come. They suggest that there is a huge opportunity for screening efforts to identify people with correctable vision problems and early signs of eye diseases. Early detection and intervention—possibly as simple as prescribing corrective lenses—could go a long way toward preventing a significant proportion of avoidable vision loss,” said NEI Director Paul A. Sieving, MD, PhD.

Over the next 35 years, Dr. Varma and his colleagues project that the number of people with legal blindness will increase by 21% each decade to two million by 2050. Likewise, best-corrected visual impairment will grow by 25% each decade, doubling to 6.95 million. The greatest burden of visual impairment and blindness will affect individuals 80 years of age or older as advanced age is a key risk factor for diseases such as age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.

In terms of absolute numbers, non-Hispanic whites, particularly white women, represent the largest proportion of people affected by visual impairment and blindness, and their numbers will nearly double, the authors predict. By 2050, 2.2 million non-Hispanic white women are expected to be visually impaired, and 610,000 will be blind. “Based on these data, there is a need for increased screening and interventions across all populations, and especially among non-Hispanic white women,” Dr. Varma said.

African-Americans currently account for the second highest proportion of visual impairment, but that is expected to shift to Hispanics around 2040, as the Hispanic population—particularly the number of older Hispanics—continues to grow. Hispanics have particularly high rates of diabetes, which is associated with diabetic eye disease, a treatable cause of visual impairment.

Source: NIH; May 19, 2016.