Focus on eyecare as UK sight loss is set to double

An ageing population and unhealthy lifestyles mean the nation’s eyesight is in decline. Medical and technological advances are welcome news for people with avoidable sight loss, but too many of us are contributing to our own poor eyesight.

The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) estimates that 50 per cent of sight loss is avoidable. And the biggest risk to eye health is poor uptake of regular sight tests.

Some 20 million people in the UK fail to have their eyes checked at least once every two years, as recommended, and one in ten have never had an eye examination, according to The Eyecare Trust’s State of the Nation’s Eyes report.

As well as having regular eye tests to ensure early diagnosis and treatment of common conditions, there are other ways of protecting your sight by adopting a healthy lifestyle which incorporates good diet and exercise.

But there is a growing incidence in key underlying causes of sight loss, such as obesity and diabetes. This means that, without action, the number of people with sight loss will double in the UK to nearly four million by 2050, according to the RNIB.

Quitting smoking can also make a significant difference to eye health. Smokers have an increased risk of conditions, such as nuclear cataracts, thyroid eye disease, dry eye, impaired colour vision and age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which is the UK’s main cause of blindness.

The inclusion of an eye health indicator in the government’s recent public health outcomes framework has been welcomed by the ophthalmic profession. It is hoped that by tracking three major causes of sight loss – AMD, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy – the data will provide a focus to tackle the issue.

The biggest risk to eye health is poor uptake of regular sight tests

For people whose sight loss is currently unavoidable, perhaps because of genetics or trauma, there are some important medical advances on the horizon. Fight for Sight is funding research into stem cell therapy, which could “cure” glaucoma and other diseases of the optic nerve. While the London Project to Cure Blindness is leading the way in finding a remedy for AMD.

“However, more investment is required from private and public sources to fund advances in therapeutic treatments and research into the causes, detection, screening and prevention of eye disease,” says Dharmesh Patel, chairman of The Eyecare Trust.

Healthcare leaders point out that the UK faces an ageing but active population with more demanding vision-correction needs. This is good news for the industry in that more people will need glasses, but it also means the market is becoming more diverse.

Eyecare, of course, is more than clinical excellence. Spectacles, including sunglasses, are also a fashion item with an expanding range of designer frames on offer. Choosing stylish eyewear is fun.

“More and more people have several pairs of glasses, rather than just one pair,” says David Craig, director of operations at the Association of Optometrists, “and lens technology is improving so lens material is becoming lighter and thinner.

“There’s a greater market in designer frames and growth in the popularity of contact lenses. It is becoming more common to see people who use contact lenses, for sport or going out in the evening, but during the day wear spectacles.”