Cataracts more likely in blacks, study says

Medicine & Science

March 01, 2004|By David Kohn | David Kohn,SUN STAFF

Blacks are almost twice as likely as whites to develop cataracts, according to a new study published today.

Released in the latest issue of Ophthalmology, the study also found that a certain form of the disease, cortical cataracts, developed three times as often among blacks.

The study nails down what some researchers had already suspected. "There have been no data on eye diseases in people of African descent," said Dr. M. Cristina Leske, an epidemiologist at the University Medical Center at Stony Brook in New York and the study's lead author.

For nine years, Leske tracked almost 3,000 people on the island of Barbados, which keeps excellent civil records that make it easy to collect epidemiological data. Leske said Barbadians of African descent are genetically similar to African-Americans.

Researchers don't know why blacks have higher cataract rates, but Leske says the difference probably stems from their relatively high rates of diabetes, hypertension and obesity, all of which boost cataract risk. The study is continuing, and Leske is using the group to examine a range of ailments, including diabetes, hypertension, and eye diseases such as glaucoma and macular degeneration.

"This is one of the best data sets for studying a black population. Doing studies like this elsewhere is much more difficult," said Dr. Andrew Schachat, an ophthalmologist at the Wilmer Eye Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, as well as the editor of Ophthalmology.

Schachat said the paper confirms what he has seen in his practice. "It's been my general sense that important eye diseases are somewhat more prevalent among African-Americans," he said.

Cataracts are clumps of protein that cloud the eye's lens and can affect perception of color. Without treatment, the ailment can cause blindness. As people age, the problem becomes more common. More than half of Americans over 80 have cataracts or have had cataract surgery.

The disease is the leading cause of blindness in the world, and affects more than 20 million Americans.

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