World Glaucoma Week spotlights one of the key health challenges for our aging world, which will have more than 2 billion people aged 60 plus by 2050 and be home to more old than young people globally. For older adults, healthy vision is at the center of healthy aging—ensuring that we can stay active, productive, and engaged throughout our longer lives.
To realize this potential, global health leaders and national health systems must step up responses to glaucoma and learn from this week’s glaucoma marker to address other conditions such as age-related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and presbyopia, each increasing as global society ages.
The need is urgent and fast-growing. Glaucoma already affects around 76 million people worldwide, representing the third leading cause of blindness. This prevalence threatens to rise in-step with population aging, leading to a projected 112 million people with glaucoma by 2040 on our current trajectory.
For most diseases and conditions—these figures would spell future catastrophe; however, with glaucoma—there’s good news. Several effective treatments are available, and they are cost-effective. We can and must ramp up early detection, diagnosis, and access to treatment to prepare for increasing prevalence as the global population ages.
Treating glaucoma improves lives and saves long-term costs
If glaucoma is not treated early enough, those affected often face a devastating cascade of impacts, such as falls, loss of independence, and subsequent mental health challenges. On top of the human toll, untreated or undertreated glaucoma and its impacts collectively escalate care needs and overall medical and long-term care costs.
But we can avoid these impacts and change the overall trajectory of glaucoma—if leaders, experts, and providers challenge harmful, ageist stereotypes that vision loss is a normal part of aging. It is urgent that we build a broad-based, proactive response.
A path forward: Fighting ageism, training HCPs, and building awareness
The case for action is clear, as outlined in the International Vision Health Scorecard. By detecting glaucoma and other age-related vision deterioration in earlier, more treatable stages, we can help millions of older people preserve their vision, independence, and overall health.
Global health organizations, health systems, policymakers, experts, and other stakeholders must take a number of key actions:
- Fight ageist ideas about glaucoma and vision loss. As outlined by the WHO’s Decade of Healthy Ageing, ageism exacerbates age-related health challenges. For too long, age-related vision loss has simply been accepted, leading to largely avoidable impacts and costs. It’s time to dispel this ageist notion and build urgency to detect, diagnose, and treat glaucoma and other age-related vision conditions as early as possible.
- Train health care workers to detect glaucoma early. Eye care should be a core skill for those health care workers on the frontlines of healthy aging, such as primary care physicians, nurses, and home health care providers. Training these workers across the system – and even family caregivers – to spot vision impairment will enable early detection and long-term cost savings.
- Build public awareness of glaucoma and treatment options. Despite its wide prevalence, awareness of glaucoma remains relatively limited; in one study in Beijing, less than 20% of residents were aware of the condition. Glaucoma and vision health can be built into public health campaigns, especially those related to aging, so that older people and their families have the information they need.
Healthy vision for healthy aging
As we look to the rest of 2021 and beyond, glaucoma and vision health present compelling opportunities to improve health outcomes, mitigate costs, and build a healthier, wealthier world.
At a time defined by more old than young, we can scale existing best practices to help older adults not only keep their vision healthy, but also contribute as pillars of healthy, prosperous communities, societies, and economies in the 21st century.
Image: Old woman by Fatma Demir