Impact of presbyopia is projected to grow as the global population ages
You notice that your vision is blurry while reviewing your monthly bank statement, that you need to hold a grocery item further away to make out the small print on the label, or that you’re fatigued after a few hours of reading, working on the computer or knitting a baby blanket for an expectant niece.
The signs are subtle, often arising so gradually that it can take awhile to acknowledge what for many is a devastating realization: You aren’t seeing as well as you did when you were a youngster.
If you’re around age 40 or older, you may recognize the symptoms of presbyopia, a condition that’s as much a part of the natural aging process as gray hair and wrinkles.1 And if you’re younger and amusing yourself by making jokes at the expense of presbyopes struggling to read the menu in a dimly lit restaurant, you won’t be laughing for long.
“Presbyopia affects everybody. It’s not a question of if, but of when,” said Rick Weisbarth, OD -Alcon’s Head of Professional Affairs for U.S. Vision Care.
What is Presbyopia?
Presbyopia is the loss of the eye’s ability to change its focus to see objects that are near. It’s not a disease, but it is a common vision condition that occurs when the natural lens in the eye loses flexibility. Anyone over age 35 is at risk for starting to develop presbyopia and everyone will experience some difficulty focusing on near items as they age, but some will notice it more than others.
In young people, the lens of the eye is soft and flexible, permitting the tiny muscles inside the eye to easily reshape the lens to focus on close and distant objects. As people age, however, the natural lens thickens and hardens, making the eye unable to focus light directly on the retina. Aging also affects the muscle fibers around the lens, making it harder for those muscles to reshape the lens and allow the eye to focus on close objects.1, 2
While presbyopia is a nuisance for individuals who are intent upon maintaining an active lifestyle as they age, they can take solace in the fact that they’re not alone. As the global population ages, the number of presbyopes is projected to surpass 2 billion by 2020 from nearly 1.7 billion today.3
“When someone becomes presbyopic, the challenge is to correct their vision so they see clearly at a distance, near and in between,” Rick explained, noting that being unable to read smartphones and see the food on a plate are common complaints. And poor lighting conditions make the situation worse. “Presbyopia presents new challenges, because it’s additive to a person’s other vision correction needs,” he acknowledged.
New Treatment Options
Presbyopia can’t be cured, but it can be treated. Once resignation displaces denial, the first thing many newly presbyopic people do is purchase those ubiquitous reading glasses available for a few dollars at local pharmacies and big-box stores. Many ruefully admit to owning multiple pairs that they stash in purses and briefcases, desk drawers and glove compartments.
Those who previously enjoyed good sight may receive their first pair of prescription eyeglasses. Others may opt for prescription reading glasses to supplement existing prescription glasses or contact lenses. Some switch up to bifocal or multifocal glasses, now available without the lines that were visible on the glasses their parents wore.
Many presbyopes are surprised to learn that other treatment options are available, including multifocal contact lenses. Alcon markets two brands of multifocal contact lenses today and is working on introducing a third multifocal contact lens made with our breakthrough water-gradient material used in Dailies Total1 contact lenses. The new lenses will become available in the United States in July, according to Rick. The company trains eye care practitioners – optometrists, ophthalmologists, and opticians – to properly fit the lenses in its new, 36,000-square-foot Alcon Experience Center in Fort Worth, Texas.
Making a Difference: Lions Club International and VisionSpring
Meanwhile, the Alcon Foundation is partnering with organizations such as Lions Club International, the world’s largest service organization and one that has been synonymous with the preservation of sight for nearly a century. In 1925, Helen Keller challenged Lions to become “knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness,” a mission the organization accepted. Since then, Lions has improved eye health and care for millions of people worldwide.4
In addition to Alcon associates participating in Lions’ used eyeglasses recycling program, Alcon also supports Lions programs that provide thousands of eye screenings every year. Since July 2015, Lions volunteers in the Fort Worth area alone have screened more than 8,500 children and adults, according to Jon Niemczyk, a Director for the area’s Lions Organ & Eye Bank.
During the screenings, “we find people whose vision has dropped off, who admit that reading and night driving are harder than they used to be,” said Jon, who retired from Alcon in 2013 after a distinguished 30-year career. “It opens the conversation about how their vision is changing and they often haven’t been to see an eye doctor in years.”
Lions recommends that these individuals see an eye care professional for a diagnosis and helps those without insurance obtain the care and glasses they need through U.S. partnering agencies.
While presbyopia is often the subject of jokes in the U.S., it’s no laughing matter in countries such as India, Bangladesh and Rwanda, where many people earn their living “with their eyes and hands” as tailors, weavers, bike mechanics, artisans and barbers, according to Dr. Jordan Kassalow, founder of VisionSpring.
VisionSpring, with support from the Alcon Foundation, conducts vision screenings and enables people in more than 20 Asian, African and Latin American countries to purchase affordable reading glasses. The organization estimates that 544 million people in these countries could have their vision restored with a pair of reading glasses.
Jordan founded the not-for-profit social business in 2001 after volunteering at eye clinics and witnessing the impact of deteriorating sight on individuals, families and communities. Since then, VisionSpring has sold 2.5 million pairs of glasses to treat presbyopia and other vision problems.
Consider the example of a 45-year-old man who supports his wife, children and elderly parents. Without reading glasses to correct his presbyopia, he will “lose his livelihood, impacting the entire family and the community at large,” Jordan related. The purchase of a pair of reading glasses from VisionSpring enables the man to work for another 20 years while increasing his earning potential.5
In addition to partnering with organizations such as Lions Club International and VisionSpring, Alcon invests $1 billion annually in R&D to pursue new treatments for presbyopia and other eye conditions and diseases. This includes Alcon’s partnership with Verily, formerly Google Life Sciences, to develop a “smart contact lens” with the potential to change the future of vision correction.
“Alcon’s role is to help people see, look and feel their best at all ages in their lives,” Rick said. “Thanks to the technical advancements in vision care in recent years, what’s now available for treating presbyopia is different from what was available for your parents.”