A groundbreaking epidemiological study of eye disease and visual impairment among Latinos living in the U.S. has turned out to be eye-opening in more ways than one. The results of the Los Angeles Latino Eye Study (LALES), funded by the National Eye Institute and the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities, reveal that America’s fastest-growing minority population suffers from high rates of visual impairment and serious eye diseases like diabetic retinopathy, cataract and open-angle glaucoma.

LALES, the largest and most comprehensive epidemiological analysis of Latinos’ eye health conducted in the U.S., studied 6,300 Latinos, primarily Mexican Americans, aged 40 and older from the Los Angeles area. The results, published in the June, July and August 2004 issues of the journal Ophthalmology, found that 3% of LALES participants were visually impaired and nearly 5% had open-angle glaucoma, a disease that damages the optic nerve. Nearly half of all study participants with diabetes had signs of the eye complication diabetic retinopathy and more than 10% had macular edema (fluid buildup in the back of the eye). One in five LALES subjects had cataract. The study also found high rates of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which can lead to a loss of central vision.

Perhaps the study’s most significant finding was that many participants did not know they had an eye disease until they were tested by the researchers. In fact, many of these Latinos didn’t know they had diabetes and were newly diagnosed during the LALES clinic exam. Among participants who were found to have AMD, only 57% reported ever visiting an eye care practitioner and only 21% went for eye checkups annually. Furthermore, 75% of Latinos with glaucoma and ocular hypertension were undiagnosed before participating in LALES.

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“Because vision loss can often be reduced with regular comprehensive eye exams and timely treatment, there is an increasing need to implement culturally appropriate programs to detect and manage eye diseases in this population,” concludes the study’s director, Rohit Varma, MD, MPH, associate professor of ophthalmology and preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine’s Doheny Eye Institute at the University of Southern California. “Overall, Latinos were much more likely to have received general medical care than to have received eye care.”

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