Study: Visual impairment, blindness expected to double in U.S. by 2050

A study published by JAMA Ophthalmology has found that the number of people with visual impairment or blindness in the United States is expected to double to more than 8 million by 2050, according to projections based on the most recent census data and from studies funded by the National Eye Institute.

The last of the baby boomer generation will be 65 years old by 2029, increasing the prevalence of visual impairments or blindness. Another 16.4 million are expected to have difficulty seeing due to correctable refractive errors such as myopia (nearsightedness) or hyperopia (farsightedness) that can be fixed with glasses, contacts or surgery.

“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.

Led by Rohit Varma, MD, director of the University of Southern California’s Roski Eye Institute in Los Angeles, the study estimates that one million Americans were legally blind (20/200 vision or worse), 3.2 million Americans had visual impairment and 8.2 million had vision problems due to uncorrected refractive errors in 2015.

The researchers analyzed data from adults 40 years and older from six major population-based studies on visual impairment and blindness. The prevalence of visual impairments and blindness were also reported by age, sex and five race/ethnicity groups per capita by state using the U.S. Census projections (January 1, 2015, through December 31, 2050)

Results concluded that over the next 35 years the number of people with visual impairments will increase 24.6 percent each decade, to 6.95 million, and those with legal blindness will increase 20.6 percent each decade, to 2.01 million.  

When broken up into race/ethic groups, non-Hispanic whites, particularly white women, represent the largest proportion of people affected by visual impairment and blindness with their numbers nearly doubling to 2.15 million visually impaired and 610,000 blind by 2050.  African Americans are the second highest group of visual impairment, but that is expected to shift to Hispanics around 2040, as the Hispanic population continues to grow. African Americans are expected to continue to account for the second highest proportion of blindness.

“Given a projected doubling of the prevalence of visual impairment and blindness in the next 35 years, vision screening and intervention for refractive error and early eye disease may prevent and/or reduce a high proportion of individuals from developing these conditions, enhance their quality of life, and potentially decrease direct and indirect costs to the U.S. economy,” wrote Varma and colleagues.