New Research Exploring Public Attitudes About Eye and Vision Health: Losing Vision Is Equal to Losing Hearing, Memory, Speech, or a Limb

the JAMA Network logo

New survey research from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago that explores Americans’ attitudes toward (a) the importance of eye health, (b) concerns about losing vision, (c) support for eye health research, and (d) awareness of eye diseases and risk factors has also revealed that the loss of eyesight is considered by many survey respondents to be “the worst ailment that could happen … relative to losing memory, speech, hearing, or a limb.”

According to the authors, “These findings emphasize the importance of focusing on the preservation of eye health and public support for vision research across all ethnic and racial groups in the United States.

This important new research, entitled Public Attitudes about Eye and Vision Health, has been published “online first” as an open source, freely available article in the August 4, 2016 edition of JAMA Ophthalmology. JAMA Ophthalmology is an international peer-reviewed journal published monthly by the American Medical Association.

The authors are Adrienne W. Scott, MD; Neil M. Bressler, MD; Suzanne Ffolkes, BA, MA; John S. Wittenborn, BS; and James Jorkasky, MBA, who represent the following institutions: Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland; Research!America, Alexandria, Virginia; the University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois; and the Alliance for Eye and Vision Research, Washington, DC.

More about the Research from JAMA Ophthalmology

First, here is a helpful summary from the article abstract:

Importance: Understanding the importance of eye health to the US population across ethnic and racial groups helps guide strategies to preserve vision in Americans and inform policy makers regarding the priority of eye research to Americans.

Objective: To understand the importance and awareness of eye health in the US population across ethnic and racial groups.

Design, Setting, and Participants: An online nationwide [survey] created by experienced policy makers in August 2014 designed to understand the importance of eye health in the US population, although the poll was not subjected previously to formal construct-validity testing. The population survey comprised 2,044 US adults, including non-Hispanic white individuals and minority groups.

[Editor’s note: “Construct validity” is a measurement used by researchers to determine whether the research design – in this case, the survey – is able to measure what the research says it is trying to measure; in this case, it is the importance and awareness of eye health to the United States population. The authors acknowledge that this is a limitation of the study, which must be considered when analyzing the survey results.]

Results: Of the 2,044 survey respondents, the mean age was 46.2 years, 48% were male, and 11% were uninsured. 63% reported wearing glasses. Most individuals surveyed (87.5%) believed that good vision is vital to overall health, while 47.4% rated losing vision as the worst possible health outcome.

Respondents ranked losing vision as equal to, or worse than, losing hearing, memory, speech, or a limb. When asked about various possible consequences of vision loss, quality of life ranked as the top concern, followed by loss of independence.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents were aware of cataracts (65.8%) or glaucoma (63.4%); only half were aware of macular degeneration; 37.3% were aware of diabetic retinopathy; and 25% were not aware of any eye conditions. Approximately 75.8% and 58.3%, respectively, identified sunlight and family heritage as risk factors for losing vision; only half were aware of smoking risks on vision loss.

Conclusions: Vision health was a priority, with high support for ongoing research for vision and eye health. Many Americans were unaware of important eye diseases and their behavioral or familial risk factors. The consistency of these findings among the varying ethnic/racial groups underscores the importance of educating the public on eye health and mobilizing public support for vision research.

More Information from the JAMA Ophthalmology Research

Next, here is more survey information from the researchers, excerpted from the article’s Introduction and Discussion:

The negative impact of vision loss on quality of life has been well documented in the literature. This negative effect of vision loss on quality of life has been demonstrated in association with cataract, diabetic eye disease, and age-related macular degeneration. Consistently, a year of life with severe vision loss has been valued at a 50% to 70% [decrease] compared with a year of life in perfect health.

However, previous studies of patient attitudes and values around vision loss have not drawn from a cross-sectional, multi-ethnic sample of Americans. Additionally, while the previous literature may inform policy makers regarding resource allocation for sight-saving interventions, the literature is largely silent on the attitudes of Americans regarding resource allocation for research into the prevention of vision loss.

[Editor’s note: A cross-sectional study analyzes a group of subjects at one specific point in time. A prospective study, on the other hand, measures a group of individuals over time and follows up with the study subjects in the future. This study measured the attitudes of the survey respondents at one specific point in time.]

While publications document that US ethnic minorities are affected disproportionately by chronic eye conditions, such as glaucoma, and have a greater chance of vision impairment or blindness from these, little information exists regarding attitudes and awareness of these groups toward eye diseases.

Furthermore, whereas vision loss from chronic age-related eye diseases is predicted to have a large impact on the US economy as life expectancy of Americans increases, federal funding for eye research is less than 0.5% of the $139 billion annual cost of vision disorders.

Across all ethnic and racial demographics, nearly 88% of Americans surveyed viewed eye health as critical to overall health. … 47% viewed vision loss as the worst possible health condition that might befall them. This was true of 57% of African American individuals, a group known to have a several-fold increased prevalence of severe vision loss and potentially a greater personal experience with its effects than Americans of other ethnicities. These findings underscore the importance of good eyesight to most and that having good vision is key to one’s overall sense of well-being, irrespective of ethnic or racial demographic.

Persons with greater visual impairments have been shown to have a decreased quality of life, linked to a perception of having less control over their environment, supporting our findings that respondents across all ethnic and racial backgrounds listed blindness high among most-feared ailments.

Similarly, this study showed that Hispanic adults are the ethnic group least likely to have heard of common eye conditions such as age-related macular degeneration or diabetic eye disease. This finding is particularly concerning in that older Latino adults with diabetes or self-reported eye disease had a higher incidence of vision loss when followed over a 4-year period.

What Can You Do in Your Everyday Life for the Prevention and Treatment of Eye Disorders?

1. Know the Differences Among Eye Care Professionals

  • An ophthalmologist is a medical or osteopathic physician who specializes in the medical and surgical care of the eyes and the prevention of eye disease. An ophthalmologist treats eye diseases, prescribes medications, and performs all types of surgery to improve, or prevent the worsening of, eye and vision-related conditions. An ophthalmologist will have the initials M.D. (Doctor of Medicine) or D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathy) after his or her name.
  • An optometrist is a health care professional who specializes in function and disorders of the eye, detection of eye disease, and some types of eye disease management. An optometrist is trained to examine the eyes for visual defects, diagnose problems or impairments, prescribe corrective glasses and contact lenses, and, in some states, perform certain surgical procedures. An optometrist will have the initials O.D. (Doctor of Optometry) after his or her name.
  • You can learn more at The Different Types of Eye Care Professionals on VisionAware.

2. Know the Difference between a Vision Screening and a Comprehensive Eye Examination

  • A vision screening is a relatively short examination that can indicate the presence of a vision problem or a potential vision problem. A vision screening cannot diagnose exactly what is wrong with your eyes; instead, it can indicate that you should make an appointment with an ophthalmologist or optometrist for a more comprehensive dilated eye examination.
  • A comprehensive dilated eye examination generally lasts between 30 and 60 minutes and is performed by an ophthalmologist or optometrist. It should always include the following components: (a) a health and medication history, (b) a vision history, (c) an eye health evaluation, (d) a refraction, or visual acuity testing, (e) visual field testing, and (f) a clear report and summary of your examination results.
  • You can learn more at The Difference between a Vision Screening and a Comprehensive Eye Examination on VisionAware.

3. Know the Risk Factors for Eye Disease

4. Know How to Locate an Eye Care Professional in Your Area

Additional Information