Cataract in nearly one-third of older Australians

Almost 1.5 million Australians aged 55 or over suffered from untreated cataract in 2004, which represents 31% of that age group, according to Vision Problems Among Older Australians, a report released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

Among older Australians, cataract (a clouding of the eye's naturally clear lens) is the most common eye disease and the most common cause of visual impairment.

It becomes more prevalent with age, such that well over 70% of Australians aged 80 or over have the disease. Cataract is also found more often in women than men.

Although cataracts are strongly related to the ageing process, other important (and preventable) risk factors include long-term exposure to sunlight and cigarette smoking.

Other eye diseases that can cause visual impairment in older Australians include age-related macular degeneration (affecting 3.1% of older Australians), diabetic retinopathy (2.8%), and glaucoma (2.3%).

A substantial number of people aged over 55 (about 491,900, or 10.4%) also have a condition called early age-related maculopathy, which usually carries no symptoms, but enhances the risk of progressing to age-related macular degeneration and resulting visual impairment.

Thus 13.5% of older Australians (638,900) have, or are at risk of developing, age-related macular degeneration.

Head of AIHW's Ageing and Aged Care Unit, Ann Peut, said that visual impairment and blindness are common problems in older Australians and the number of older people affected is likely to increase as the population ages.

"About 444,400 Australians aged 55 or more are visually impaired, which represents 9.4 per cent of the 4.7 million Australians in that age group," Ms Peut said.

"Visual impairment can significantly affect their daily living in many ways such as reading, watching television, driving, getting around and increasing the risk of falls and injury. Preventing and treating these conditions can increase the prospect of enjoying life as a healthy, productive older person."

The report also found that about 1.2% of older Australians (56,100 people) are so visually impaired that they are rated as blind. The most common causes of blindness in this age group are age-related macular degeneration (50 per cent of all cases of blindness), glaucoma (16%), and cataract (12%).

Vision Problems Among Older Australians is the first report of its kind to be based on the best of local and international data sources. It is part of a series being produced by the AIHW with support from the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing to help assess the health and wellbeing of the older population in Australia.

22 July 2005

Further information: Ms Ann Peut, AIHW, tel 61 2 6244 1108, or mob 04 1929 6053. For clinical comment contact Professor Ian Constable, Lions Eye Institute, tel 61 8 9381 0882.

For media copies of the report: Publications Officer, AIHW, tel 61 2 6244 1032.