By Denis Langlois

Canada’s aging population is contributing to an “emerging vision crisis” in the country, according to the Canadian Association of Optometrists.

The national organization, which represents more than 5,000 doctors of optometry in Canada, says the number of people aged 65 years and older will account for nearly one-quarter of the country’s population by 2031.

Meanwhile, the occurrence of the four major eye diseases that contribute to vision loss in Canada – age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and cataracts – each increases with age.

The CAO says the cost of this vision loss has a significant impact on Canada’s economy.
Recently, the organization presented recommendations to a federal standing committee on how the Canadian government can make eye health and vision care for seniors a “public health priority.”

They include things like providing federal funding for research on healthy aging and eye disease in seniors, such as for new treatments and prevention measures, as well as enhancing public awareness about eye health and creating a comprehensive eye health and vision care strategy.

Optical Prism recently spoke with Dr. Michael Nelson, the CAO’s vice-president, about the emerging vision crisis in Canada and what can be done about it.

Q. Dr. Nelson, why should this crisis be of concern to Canadians?
A. Each year in Canada, $15.8-billion is spent on the direct costs associated with vision loss.
However, of more significance is the $8.1-billion spent on indirect costs, of which lost productivity – largely attributable to a low employment rate – represents the single largest component, at $4.4 billion (or 54 per cent) annually.
In 2017, the Canadian Institute of Health Information (CIHI) reported that Canadians spent $4.8 billion – two per cent of all health care spending in Canada – on vision services.
Any degree of progressive vision loss is associated with increased costs in the health system and to the overall economy. While this means increased rates of injury, physical trauma and social isolation for seniors, for everyone else it can translate into lower educational attainment and employment rates, higher absenteeism, decreased salary, injury, premature retirement, lower socioeconomic position and poorer health and life chances.

Q. What role should the government play in helping to address this crisis?
A. The Canadian Association of Optometrists believes that there is an opportunity for the federal government to exercise leadership by committing to a National Eye Health and Vision Care Strategy that promotes eye health and prevents vision loss to the benefit of all Canadians.
Led by the federal government, working collaboratively with health professionals, non-governmental organizations, industry and individuals, the strategy would prioritize the needs of high-risk communities, including seniors, children, and Indigenous Canadians.
This Strategy also provides an opportunity for Canada to join the Commonwealth Heads of Government in recognizing public health interventions as both cost-effective and able to improve the health and well-being of Canadians, which in turn results in a more robust economy and society.

Q. What about eye care professionals. Is there a role they can play in addressing this crisis?
A. An eye care provider’s first priority is to provide patient-centred care. This means that in addition to diagnosing and treating our patients for eye disorders or disease, we should educate our patients about vision health and lifestyle choices they can make to protect and enhance their vision health.
It also means working collaboratively with other health care providers so that the best outcomes can be achieved.

Q. And finally, what advice would you give to seniors about their vision?
A. Regular visits to your optometrists is an easy way to ensure eye health for all Canadians.
CAO’s frequency guidelines recommend that seniors see their optometrist annually for a comprehensive eye exam. While the exam can detect eye diseases and disorders like AMD, glaucoma, cataracts and diabetic retinopathy, it can also identify other system health issues, including hypertension, multiple sclerosis, autoimmune disorders, as well as thyroid or liver disease.