Ophthalmologist and Physician-Scientist
Three Eye Diseases Disproportionately Affecting African-Americans

Three Eye Diseases Disproportionately Affecting African-Americans

The likelihood of contracting an eye disease depends on a variety of internal and external factors. A person’s family background can have a direct impact on the probability of developing certain illnesses affecting vision.

Unfortunately, the diversity of people in the US does not accurately reflect the diversity of the country’s health research subjects. As a result, many health treatments, discoveries and prevention tools in America are tailored to the genetics of European-Americans of white ancestry.

When it comes to vision health specifically, minority populations are not adequately represented in modern research. This puts people of various ethnic groups at a serious disadvantage for taking care of their eyesight over the long-term and exposes these populations to higher rates of certain forms of vision loss.

One example of a minority group negatively impacted by this research deficiency is the African-American community. Listed below are three eye diseases disproportionately affecting African-American citizens of the US and what can be done to help encourage greater prevention measures in this group.


  1. Glaucoma

black womanPeople affected by glaucoma experience damage to the optic nerve in the eye. The nerve is responsible for transferring all visual information observed by the retina to the part of the brain that processes vision. The damage to the optic nerve occurs due to pressure caused by an increased buildup of fluid in the front of the eye.

Glaucoma is generally considered to occur in one of two forms. Primary open-angle glaucoma, the most common form, occurs gradually over time. Angle-closure glaucoma occurs suddenly and can cause blindness quickly if left untreated.

Glaucoma is considered to be the leading cause of blindness among all individuals from all racial backgrounds over 60 years old. Unfortunately, the risk of developing the disease is significantly higher among African-American people in this age group. However, glaucoma does not solely affect older generations. Research has shown African-Americans as a group are more susceptible to developing glaucoma at a younger age.

According to the Glaucoma Foundation, the disease “strikes earlier and progresses faster” in African-Americans, occurring about five times more frequently and about 10 years earlier than in other demographics. Additionally, while glaucoma does not always lead to blindness if a person receives the right medical intervention in time, blindness is six times more likely to occur in glaucoma patients who are African-American than in other groups.

Some researchers believe African-Americans are genetically more at risk for developing glaucoma. However, scientists are still unsure as the exact reason why this group is more susceptible.

The people from the African-American community most at risk for the development of glaucoma include those who are older than age 40 years, have diabetes, have hypertension, experience extreme nearsightedness and who engaged in prolonged steroid use. The Glaucoma Foundation recommends African-Americans be screened for the disease at least once every two years after the age of 35.


  1. Cataracts

The leading cause of blindness around the world, a cataract occurs when the natural lens responsible for refracting light rays within the human eye is cloudy. This causes blurry, hazy vision or dulled perception of color tones.

Cataracts mostly occur naturally with age, as the proteins within the natural lens begin to clump together, typically at the age of 40 years or older. There are three main forms of cataracts — subcapsular, nuclear and cortical — which describe clouding in the back, central and periphery-to-center of the eye’s lens, respectively.

Members of the African-American community are at an increased risk of developing both cataracts and associated blindness. In fact, their risk is about 1.5 times greater than Caucasians, and cataracts are responsible for about half of all cases of vision loss in this group.

Luckily, surgery on cataracts has been shown to improve vision for approximately 90 percent of patients who undergo the operation. Surgery is also known to be nearly painless in the majority of cases.

Some breakdown of the eye’s natural lens is expected with age. However, there are certain factors researchers believe increase a person’s chances of developing cataracts. These factors include smoking, having diabetes, having hypertension, being obese, excessive alcohol consumption and undergoing hormone replacement therapy.

Generally, experts recommend regular testing by an ophthalmologist to detect cataracts early. Testing should include comprehensive dilated eye exams for people aged 60 years and older at least once every two years.


  1. Diabetic retinopathy

Similar to glaucoma and cataracts, diabetic retinopathy typically has no warning signs. In people living with diabetes, this condition occurs when blood vessels in the eye’s retina are damaged by high blood sugar levels. The damaged vessels can either swell and leak into the eye, or close down entirely, preventing blood flow to the area.

In some cases, diabetic retinopathy spurs the growth of new, abnormal blood vessels which interfere with the retina’s function. All of these changes to this delicate center of vision can cause vision loss. The disease occurs in two stages: non-proliferative (the early stage) and proliferative (the advanced stage).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among adults with diabetes older than age 40 years, almost one-third are affected by diabetic retinopathy. Among African-American adults with diabetes, the prevalence sits at approximately 33 percent. Not all diabetic retinopathy will cause severe vision loss, but vision-threatening cases occurred about three times more often in African-American individuals than in Caucasians exhibiting the condition.

As with glaucoma and cataracts, experts recommend routine eye screenings to diagnose diabetic retinopathy in its earliest stages. Additionally, it can help to make healthy lifestyle changes to keep the condition causing the condition — diabetes — under control.

Recommendations include eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, engaging in regular physical exercise and drinking alcohol in moderation. Keeping blood sugar and blood pressure at healthy levels can help control the potential visual damage caused by diabetic retinopathy.