In fact, two-thirds of all blind or visually-impaired people in the world are women, according to the Women’s Eye Health Task Force at the Schepens Eye Research Institute, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School.
In the developing world, women of all ages are affected more often than men. ‘A major cause is that women do not have access to eye care to the same degree as men do,’ Gipson said.
Women’s access to care is often complicated by their disproportionately lower incomes and greater responsibilities juggling work and family concerns, according to a 2002 Kaiser Family Foundation Report.
The problem is not limited to underdeveloped countries. In North America and other industrialized regions, ‘a major reason for the disparity is that women live longer than men and the risk of blindness and visual impairment increases with age,’ explained Dr. Ilene K. Gipson, professor of ophthalmology at Harvard and senior scientist at the Schepens Institute.
Cataracts, which result when the lens of the eye becomes cloudy, are the leading cause of blindness worldwide. ‘More men receive cataract surgery even though there are more women with cataracts worldwide,’ said Gipson. Certain types of cataracts, specifically the kind that affects the outside of the lens, are seen more often in women.
The discrepancy isn’t limited to cataracts. Other eye diseases are more prevalent in women including trachoma — an infectious disease — and dry eye syndrome.
‘Seventy five to 85 percent of people with trachoma are women,’ Gipson said. Trachoma can cause corneal scarring and if left untreated may lead to blindness. This disease is the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness, and also the most preventable cause of blindness.
Dry eye syndrome can lead to corneal scarring and vision loss. Dry eye syndrome is often linked to autoimmune diseases such as Sjögren’s syndrome. This is a chronic disease in which white blood cells attack the moisture-producing glands. The hallmark symptoms are dry eyes and dry mouth, but it is a systemic disease, affecting many organs and may cause fatigue. It is one of the most prevalent autoimmune disorders.
‘Since most autoimmune diseases are seen in women, female hormones probably play a role, but it is not yet clear how this works,’ Gipson said.
Because women tend to live longer, age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a disease that blurs central vision and can lead to vision loss in both eyes, and diabetic retinopathy, a complication of diabetes that affects the retina and can cause blindness, become issues to contend with.
Lifestyle choices may also play a role. ‘It is now known that the same risk factors that cause premature death, such as smoking and obesity cause eye disease as well,’ said Gipson.
Women need to be aware of their risk. Obesity and diabetes are on the rise, and studies have shown that diet and nutrition can protect the eyes, as well as the rest of the body. In terms of AMD and diabetic retinopathy, ‘women should not smoke, should maintain an appropriate body weight and if they have diabetes, should keep their blood sugar levels under control,’ Gipson cautioned.
For cataracts, trachoma and dry eye syndrome, early detection and proper treatment are vital. Women should be aware of the symptoms and discuss them with their doctors.
A yearly eye exam is recommended, especially for women over the age of 50. Women in their forties should have their eyes checked every two to four years. Women between the ages of 18 and 39 should have their eyes checked at least once a year and follow the doctor’s advice on the need for additional exams, if any.