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Black History Month Eye Health

In honor of Black History Month, it is important to highlight not only the history of African Americans, but what is still affecting them today. One of those things is eye health.

As of 2019, there were nearly 190,000 African Americans suffering from low vision (Source: National Eye Institute). According to two landmark studies, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma are the leading causes of vision loss in African Americans 40 years of age or older (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

It is necessary to bring attention to this health concern during this month of recognition and acknowledgement because African American adults are 50% to 100% more likely to have diabetes than whites (Source: National Library of Medicine). In the Salisbury Eye Evaluation Study, African Americans had a four-fold risk of vision loss, as diabetic retinopathy causes 17% of visual loss in African Americans and only 8% in non-Hispanic whites (Source: National Library of Medicine).

Diabetes, among several other medical conditions, greatly affects African Americans and is statistically more responsible for their serious medical and visual complications. Diabetes affects the smallest blood vessels in the body first, which are located in our eyes, fingers, toes, and kidneys. These blood vessels become damaged and leaky due to increased blood sugar, resulting in irreversible damage throughout the body. When diabetes causes damage to the blood vessels inside of the eye, it is called diabetic retinopathy. More than 800,000 African Americans have diabetic retinopathy, which can result in irreversible vision loss (Source: National Eye Institute).

Glaucoma is another eye condition that can result in blindness due to increased pressure inside of the eye that causes damage to the optic nerve. The optic nerve is the telephone wire from the eye to the brain and once neural tissue is damaged, it cannot be repaired. According to the National Eye Institute glaucoma affects African Americans at a younger age compared to any other race, and therefore they are more likely to deal with blindness from glaucoma as they age. Alarmingly, African Americans are 15 times more likely to suffer significant vision loss due to glaucoma compared to Caucasians (Source: National Library of Medicine).

With this information in mind, I try to educate. Most diabetics do not get the proper diet education and therefore do not know what is affecting them or what they should limit/ cut out. When I treat and manage blacks that have diabetes, I spend time discussing diet, specifically sugary drinks. Fruit has natural sugar and should be limited, which comes as a shock to some. I emphasize that all sugary drinks should be discontinued completely, including orange/apple juice, soda (diet included), sweetened tea, and flavored milk. Artificial sweeteners should be limited as well, but I recommend Stevia if they are going to use it.

To really emphasize how this condition is affecting their eyesight, I also take pictures of the inside of their eyes. I discuss the Diabetic Control and Complications Trial, a landmark study, which suggests keeping the average blood sugar value, known as the HgA1c, below 7.0 to prevent blindness from diabetes. When you consistently have high blood sugars, it causes the vessels to become weak and leaky, resulting in irreversible vision loss.

In order to catch the early signs of eye disease, it is important to emphasize regular eye examinations. As previously stated, diabetes can result in cataract formation and irreversible damage to the eyes at an earlier age than those without the condition. It is highly recommended that patients over the age of 40 have annual examinations.

Erika Morrow
[email protected]


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