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Aging and Vision Loss in Canada

Editor's Note: Sean McNeely is a writer/editor with the national communications department of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. This article discusses some of the material presented at the 2004 Cost of Blindness: What it means to Canadians Symposium, which was organized by health care professionals, researchers and service providers, at which no presenters representing consumer organizations were included. The new study released at the symposium by the Environics Research Group also shows how far we still must go and how important public education work remains.

Imagine, for a moment, attending a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey game at the Air Canada Centre.

It?s sold out, with all 19,500 seats filled. As you look across the rows of seats and scan the crowd, imagine that every fourth person will experience vision loss by age 75.

Every fourth person will no longer be able to drive, to read, or to see the faces of loved ones. Within this group, many will experience depression, requiring counselling or medication. And each will have to adjust to vision loss and overcome emotional and physical challenges in order to maintain an independent lifestyle.

While the hockey game is fiction, the numbers of those that will lose their vision and the consequent effects are very much fact.

Canada is experiencing a crisis in age-related vision loss, stressed speakers at The Cost of Blindness: What it means to Canadians symposium, held in Toronto on January 31 and February 1, 2004.

Hosted by The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) in partnership with Canada?s leading vision health organizations, the event featured national and international experts in the fields of blindness, low vision and epidemiology.

The event was organized in part because of the need for blindness research in Canada, which is sorely lacking when compared to the U.S., U.K. and Australia. For example, compare the amount of money spent on blindness research north and south of the border.

In 2003, Canada spent about C$28 million on blindness research. The National Eye Institute of America, along with two major private research agencies spent U.S.$660 million (C$839 million).

And yet a new study released at the symposium by the Environics Research Group shows Canadians cherish their vision and would go to great lengths to preserve their sight.

Seven out of ten Canadians say they fear losing their vision more than losing the use of their legs or their hearing. One third would sell everything they owned to save their eyesight.

For hundreds of thousands of Canadians, this fear has become a reality.

Dr. Ralf Buhrmann, of the Ottawa Eye Institute, told the symposium audience that there are approximately 387,000 blind and vision-impaired Canadians over 40.

However, what is alarming is how this figure is expected to skyrocket over the next 25 years, as more and more Canadians reach their senior years.

Incidence of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is soaring as baby boomers reach 50 and 60. In 2003, just under 80,000 new cases were diagnosed across Canada. Glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy are also on the rise with thousands of Canadians totally unaware they have glaucoma or diabetes.

While there has been much concern about the rising incidence of age-related vision loss, there has been little research on the impact of this vision loss,? said Dr. Hugh Taylor, head of the Centre for Eye Research Australia.

Recent research in Australia shows that elderly people with vision loss are admitted to nursing homes on average three years earlier than those without vision loss. Their risk of falls is twice as high, their risk of depression three times as high, and their risk of hip fracture--a leading cause of death in the elderly--is four times as high. Worst of all, their risk of death is twice as high.?

While no similar research has been done in Canada, the medical costs related to treating these types of injuries and conditions are also substantial.

Professor David Foot, author of the best-seller Boom, Bust and Echo, told the symposium audience that falls are the fastest growing cause of death for people in their 70s and 80s. Also alarming, motor vehicle accidents are almost as high for people in their 80s as for those in their 20s--the decade of highest incidence for such accidents.

Given that these are the years when vision loss is greatest, could these falls and accidents be happening because people can?t see properly?? asked Foot.

For thousands of Canadians, losing their vision may also mean losing their jobs. Recent studies state that in Canada and the United States about 70 percent of working-age adults who are blind are unemployed.

Four out of five working-age blind Canadians do not have an opportunity to work and contribute to this country?s economic growth,? said Chris Stark in a magazine article published last summer by the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality.

Most blind persons have an inadequate income during working age and after retirement, well below the level of other Canadians. Blind persons have a standard of living inferior to all other Canadians,? he added.

To bring about change, a shift in attitude towards investing in blindness programs is needed, urged Corinne Kirchner, director of the Department of Policy Research and Program Evaluation at the American Foundation for the Blind.

Instead of asking, ?What are the costs to society of having X number of blind and visually impaired people?? one should ask, ?What are the costs to society of preventing or limiting the economic productivity of people who are blind or visually impaired??

For information on the symposium, including video and audio presentations of each speaker, visit: www.costofblindness.org

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