Glaucoma rate rise prompts warning

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‘EYE INCOME’:
Experts warned of links that diabetes and smoking have to eyesight issues, and said nearsightedness can be controlled by limiting exertion of the eyes

  • By Jennifer Huang, Yu Chao-fu and Kayleigh Madjar / Staff reporters, with staff writer

Glaucoma rates have climbed steadily to reach new highs last year in patient numbers and medical costs, National Health Insurance Administration data showed, as a doctor warned over lifestyle habits that increase the incidence of premature retinal disease.

The number of people seeking glaucoma-related treatment rose by 44,000 in the four years since 2016 to surpass 300,000 in 2019, the agency’s latest statistics showed.

Last year, the number rose to 302,000, while costs also hit a record of 17.5 billion payment points, or about NT$15.8 billion (US$552.41 million), even as emergency room visits declined amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the data showed.

Retinal conditions such as glaucoma, cataracts and macular degeneration usually correlate with age, but there has been a rise in premature onset, said Keelung Chang Gung Memorial Hospital superintendent Lai Chi-chun (賴旗俊), an ophthalmologist.

Over the past five years, the number of people younger than 50 seeking treatment for glaucoma has risen by 10,000, Lai said.

For younger people, extreme nearsightedness and diabetes are high-risk factors, he said.

About 70 to 90 percent of the nation’s junior-high students have imperfect vision, Lai said, adding that as many as 20 percent of them have extreme myopia.

By the time they reach 40 or 50, they would be more prone to retinal detachment or other conditions, he said.

Glaucoma or cataracts might arise a decade earlier than normal in the group, making it more likely that macular contraction, ocular tearing or even blindness could follow, he said.

While the population of those living with visual impairments has decreased over the past five years, the number of impairments caused by eye disease has increased from 35,080 in 2015 to 35,979 in 2019, Ministry of Health and Welfare data showed.

Over an extended period, high blood sugar affects circulation in the eye and ocular lens metabolism, increasing the incidence of retina-related conditions, Lai said.

However, 20 to 40 percent of people with diabetes fail to get eye exams, he said.

Smoking can also harm eyesight by increasing the amount of peroxide in the bloodstream or by damaging lenses, he said.

To keep nearsightedness from worsening, Lai recommended that people refrain from exerting their eyes too much.

Keep a regular schedule and diet, and visit an eye doctor at least once a year after age 40 to catch any conditions before they become disruptive, he said.

Lai also warned against commercial medication that promises to improve eyesight.

Many lack a scientific basis or exaggerate the benefits while charging exorbitant prices, he said.

However, certain foods have been proven to aid eyesight by boosting lutein levels, such as egg yolks, and dark green or yellow vegetables, he said.

“Eyesight is like saving money: You need to reduce spending as well as increase income,” Kaohsiung Chang Gung Memorial Hospital Department of Ophthalmology director Wu Pei-chang (吳佩昌) said.

People can “reduce spending” by taking eye breaks, Wu said, recommending 10 minutes of rest for every 30 minutes of screen time.

The WHO recommends that infants up to one year old avoid electronic devices, while children older than two should not exceed one hour of use daily, he said.

To “increase income,” Wu said that people should have outdoor activities for 14 to 16 hours every week, or about two hours every day.

This is because sunlight causes the eyes to secrete dopamine — an eye growth regulator — thereby “accumulating eye energy,” he said, adding that parents should take their children to see an eye doctor every six months to improve their understanding of “eyesight savings.”

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