By DENIS LANGLOIS
The numbers are staggering.
More than 5.5 million Canadians have a major eye disease that can cause full or partial blindness down the road.
And each year in Canada, about 50,000 people will lose their eyesight, joining the half-million other Canadians who have already experienced vision loss that is significant enough to impact their quality of life.
But according to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, which compiled those statistics, that annual count doesn’t have to be so high.
The registered charity says about 75% of vision loss is avoidable through treatment and prevention.
And like eyecare professionals have been telling people for decades, the CNIB says the best way to avoid vision loss is to have regular checkups with an ECP; the earlier the diagnosis, the greater the chance to minimize damage.
“Regular checkups can allow the detection of these diseases that could otherwise cause vision loss. Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent vision loss,” says Dr. Keith Gordon, vice-president of research at the CNIB.
Routine checkups are especially important for the baby boomer generation, since all major eye diseases are diseases of older people, according to Gordon.
Age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss in Canada, mostly affects people over the age of 60. The same is true for glaucoma and cataracts. Diabetic retinopathy typically begins when a person is in their 50s.
The CNIB estimates that the prevalence of vision loss in Canada will increase by nearly 30% within the next decade, due largely to the demographic shift caused by the country’s aging population.
Even through ECPs have been trying to drive home the importance of regular eye exams, the CNIB has found that a dichotomy exists between what people say and what they do.
A National Vision Health Report, commissioned by the CNIB this spring, found that 92% of respondents believe that eye exams are an important part of their overall health maintenance.
Yet almost a quarter say they have not had their eyes tested in the last two years. About 40% of respondents were unaware of the most common eye diseases that cause vision loss, most of which are asymptomatic.
The CNIB provides community-based support for people who are blind or partially sighted and also advocates for a barrier-free society.
The organization also works to eliminate “avoidable sight loss” through research and by promoting the importance of vision health through public education.
Along with regular eye exams, the CNIB says some lifestyle choices can also help to prevent vision loss.
Wearing sunglasses that protect the eyes from ultra-violet rays from the sun, taking vitamins, quitting smoking, exercising on a regular basis, controlling diabetes and maintaining a healthy diet high in omega-3 fatty acids and dark, leafy greens are each ways to help prevent vision loss.
The CNIB is an excellent resource for people who are experiencing vision loss.
ECPs can direct clients to the not-for-profit organization’s website, www.cnib.ca, or one of its branches, which are located in communities throughout the country.
The charity has a long list of services and resources available, including counselling and peer support groups.
“We try to empathize how hard vision loss is and how it can be very isolating but that there is help and that is where we come in,” says Sue Marsh-Woods, regional supervisor of client services with the CNIB.
“We have to acknowledge that everyone will experience the loss in their own way and that it is normal to feel sad and many other emotions. We can link them to someone with vision loss if this is helpful. We are here to help them to regain their independence.”
New clients with CNIB meet with a care co-ordinator who works with the person to assess their needs.
People with some remaining vision can be scheduled for a low-vision assessment to identify tools and tips to enhance their vision, such as magnifiers and computer screen readers, Marsh-Woods says.
Independent living skills specialists are available to help people who have issues around the home, such as with preparing meals, and orientation and mobility specialists can assist people who are finding it difficult to get around.
The CNIB also offers tips for family members and caregivers.
The organization maintains an extensive library for people who are unable to read traditional print. It includes audio books and reading materials with braille.
The CNIB also has an online store with multiple items for sale to assist people with vision loss, such as talking watches, timers, clocks and pedometers, large-button phones, TV magnifiers and white canes.