By Dr. Mark S. Siegel
In 2020, the number of people in the United States with visual impairment – sight loss often caused by eye disease, trauma, or a congenital or degenerative condition that cannot be corrected with glasses or contact lenses – is projected to increase to at least four million. This is a 70 percent increase from 2000 and is due to the growing aging population and prevalence of age-related eye diseases.
To help determine ways to decrease the incidence of visual impairment, researchers at the University of Wisconsin examined the relationships between the incidence of visual impairment and three modifiable lifestyle behaviors: smoking, drinking alcohol and staying physically active. The research was conducted as part of the Beaver Dam Eye Study, a long-term population-based cohort study from 1988 to 2013 of nearly 5,000 adults aged 43 to 84 years.
The researchers found that regular physical activity and an alcoholic beverage every now and then is associated with a lower risk of visual impairment. The data showed that over 20 years, visual impairment developed in 5.4 percent of the population and varied based on lifestyle behaviors. For example, people who were physically active had a 58 percent decrease in the odds of developing visual impairment compared to people who were not physically active.
The researchers also found that people who drank alcohol occasionally (defined as those who have consumed alcohol in the past year, but reported fewer than one serving in an average week) had a 49 percent decrease in the odds of developing visual impairment compared to people who had consumed no alcohol in the past year.
As with most epidemiologic research, the researchers caution that a limitation to their study is that the findings may be due, in part, to unmeasured factors related to both lifestyle behaviors and development of visual impairment. The data does not prove that these lifestyle behaviors are directly responsible for increased risk. The researchers still believe the research shows good promise for indicating ways that people can lessen their risk of visual impairment through lifestyle changes.