The Truth About Women and Eye Disease
If you are lacking the Y chromosome, statistically speaking, you’re more likely to suffer from an eye-related illness during your life than the man sitting next to you. In fact, females make up two-thirds of the world’s population of blind and visually impaired. FYidoctors looks at the reason behind this statistic and what challenges women face when it comes to their eye health.
Of the 39 million blind people across the world, nearly two-thirds are women who are living in low- or middle-income countries. According to the World Health Organization, 246 million people currently suffer from low vision.
Globally, the most common causes of blindness in both genders are cataracts, uncorrected refractive error, and age-related macular degeneration (AMD). But for women, blindness or low vision is caused mostly by cataracts and AMD. Amongst common eye diseases, women are more prone to dry eye and autoimmune diseases than men.
Why women are losing the battle globally
There is no biological reason for the increased prevalence of vision impairment in women, but access to eye healthcare in developing countries is a major factor. In addition to the difficulties faced travelling to a surgical facility, the cost of surgery, lack of information and resources, and fear of a poor outcome prevent women with eye diseases from being treated.
Women’s higher life expectancy than men is also affecting the numbers. The most common cause of blindness in industrialized countries, AMD, affects mostly those over 70 years of age. Hormonal fluctuations experienced by women also negatively affect their eyes. These fluctuations are caused by use of birth control and fertility drugs, natural body chemistry changes during pregnancy and menopause, or complications with autoimmune diseases or breast cancer.
Common eye diseases for women
In Canada, the major causes of vision loss include AMD, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, cataracts, and refractive error – all of which women are more at risk of developing.
AMD. Most commonly found among people age 70 and older, AMD causes damage to the macula, a small spot near the centre of the retina and the part of the eye needed for sharp, central vision. The macula lets us see objects that are directly in front of it. There are about 1.4 million Canadians living with AMD, many of whom have vision loss or are at risk. Women are twice as likely to develop AMD as men.
Cataracts. Cataracts develop when the lens of the eye becomes clouded, causing vision loss and eventually blindness if not treated. Minor surgery to remove the clouded lens is very common and highly successful. An age-related condition, more than half of North Americans aged 65 and older have had at least one cataract.
Diabetic retinopathy. Caused by changes in the blood vessels of the retina, diabetic retinopathy makes blood vessels in both eyes swell and leak fluid. For some people, abnormal new blood vessels grow on the surface of the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye. A healthy retina is necessary for good vision. Diabetic retinopathy commonly develops in women who have diabetes during pregnancy. This includes both women who have had diabetes before their pregnancies and those who develop gestational diabetes during a pregnancy.
Dry eye disease. Dry eye disease develops when the eye doesn’t create enough tears to lubricate the surface of the eye. Although not a cause of blindness, dry eye disease increases your chances of infection and leads to visual impairment. Women suffer from this disease two to three times more than men. Birth control usage and hormonal changes are thought to be a cause. Treatment includes artificial tear solutions, ointment, or the insertion of tear duct plugs.
Glaucoma. Glaucoma is a progressive eye disease often related to an increase in internal eye pressure, which can lead to gradual damage of the optic nerve and permanent vision loss. The optic nerve is made up of fibres that carry images to the brain, much like an electric cable filled with wire. When glaucoma damages the optic nerve fibres, blind spots develop. As the damage progresses, blank spots begin to appear in the field of vision. If the entire nerve is destroyed, vision is lost completely.
Refractive error. Refractive errors occur when the shape of the eye prevents light from focusing directly on the retina. The length of the eyeball (longer or shorter), changes in the shape of the cornea, or aging of the lens can cause refractive errors. Refractive errors can be corrected with eyeglasses, contact lenses, or surgery. Since the number of people with poor vision due to uncorrected (or undercorrected) refractive error increases greatly in older age groups, women are more often affected due to their longer average life span.
Prevention here at home
In Canada, there are more than 5.5 million people living with a major eye disease that could cause vision loss. Women make up over half of the population of the blind (57%) and are more likely than men to report having a sight-limiting condition (59%). Even with access to western medicine, more than 75% of visual impairment is estimated to be preventable or correctable.
To diagnose an eye disease in its early stages, women should receive regular eye exams to monitor their vision status and eye health. It is recommended that pregnant women see their eye doctor regularly to discuss any vision changes. Eating a healthy diet rich in vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene, lutein, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, and zeaxanthin will help maintain vision. Keep a diet that is low in sodium and caffeine but high in water intake. As with many diseases, smoking vastly increases your risk of eye disease.
At FYidoctors we offer comprehensive eye exams with diagnostic equipment that help detect many of these vision issues before they become more serious. Talk to your local FYidoctors professional to find out more about eye health risks to women.