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Why Your Ethnic Background Matters

A growing body of scientific evidence shows that the risks of developing certain eye diseases vary markedly among people of different ethnic backgrounds.  Among the numerous examples:

Latinos have higher rates of developing diabetic eye disease, glaucoma, and cataracts than non-Hispanic whites. During one four-year period of the Los Angeles Latino Eye Study, Latinos developed visual impairment and blindness at the highest rate of any ethnic group in the country when compared with estimates from other population-based studies.

Chinese Americans have a dramatically higher prevalence of neovascular (“wet”) age-related macular degeneration than whites or other ethnic groups. Researchers also found a three-times-higher prevalence of visual impairment among Chinese Americans with Type II diabetes compared to those without diabetes. Also, myopia (nearsightedness) is very common among Chinese and other Asians.

Among African Americans, glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness. The disease is about four times more common in African Americans than in people of European ancestry. Clinical observations indicate that primary open angle glaucoma, the most common form of the disease, tends to appear ten years earlier in African Americans, and progresses more rapidly.

African Americans and Japanese Americans are also prone to a particularly severe form of the disease called “normal pressure” or “low tension” glaucoma, observes Dr. Lee Wan, Coastal Eye’s Medical Director. “This variant of glaucoma occurs and progresses even at eye pressures that would usually be considered in the ‘normal’ range. These patients need to be examined with particular attention for signs of glaucoma, and can be very challenging to treat because their eyes are so sensitive to the pressure.”

In addition, African Americans were found to have the highest rates of diabetic macular edema, a potentially blinding consequence of untreated diabetic eye disease — even though Hispanics tend to have the highest prevalence of diabetes.

Dr. Wan also cares for many Filipino patients in his practice. Although Filipinos have not been studied specifically as a group, they also seem to be prone to cataracts, glaucoma and complications of diabetic retinopathy, he says.

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