How does visual impairment differ demographically?

April 20, 2018

Worryingly, charities have raised concerns that by 2050, sight loss in the UK could double to affect over four million people. As of 2017, it’s estimated that there are more than two million people suffering with sight loss in the UK. However, just 360,000 of those are officially registered as blind. Troublingly, according to RNIB, 250 people every day start to lose their sight, with one in five people suffering from sight loss in their lifetime.     

Here we look at the most common causes of sight loss — and discuss if there could be ways to cure it.

Experts believe that the most common cause of sight loss is refractive error, which affects around two million people living with sight loss in the UK. 39% have a refractive error, whilst 23% have age-related macular degeneration, 19% have cataracts, 7% have glaucoma, 7% have an eye disease and 5% have diabetic retinopathy. But how does this reflect demographic sight loss?


In the UK, it is estimated that around 25,000 children, aged 16 and under are suffering from some degree of sight loss. There are several causes of sight loss amongst children, but cerebral visual impairment is the common cause of certification for severe sight impairment in England and Wales. Severe sight loss and blindness is difficult to treat; however, some cases of visual impairment can be treated amongst young children to correct vision defects, if caught in early stages.

Some experts believe that an early diagnosis is vital to being able to give a child the best opportunity to correct their vision problems. Corrective lenses and glasses can be prescribed to treat refractive errors in children’s eyes, such as nearsightedness (myopia), farsightedness (hyperopia) and astigmatism — the aim of this is to correct the vision defect before it develops into a long-term issue. If caught at a young age, the child has a better opportunity of minimising their potential sight loss.

Strabismus is the misalignment of one eye — and this can also be treated using corrective lenses. The condition can be put right by correcting any refractive error with glasses, an eye patch to equalize vision, and, in some cases, surgery to alter the way the muscles pull the eye.

Patch therapy is a popular treatment among young children, with amblyopia also likely to be treated using this technique. Approximately six out of every 10,000 newborn children have cataracts, which is a clouding of the eye’s internal focusing lens. When caught in the early stages — most effective when caught in the first four years of life — amblyopia can be corrected. If caught after the age of eight years old, amblyopia is less responsive to treatment and could result in a long-term visual impairment.

By no means can all types of sight loss or visual impairment be fully cured in children — they do however, have a higher rate of cure because of their age and the ability to retrain the eyes. For those who can’t have their visual impairment cured, there are schools for the blind to enhance their education, and make learning as a child more successful and independent.

AdultsSight loss

Amongst adults, the most common cause of visual impairment appears to be AMD, with 48% of adults blind due to AMD — different to that of the most common cause amongst the entire UK population living with sight loss. Whilst refractive errors appeared to be common amongst the entire sight loss population, only 2% of adults are living with blindness due to refractive error — suggesting that refractive error must be much more common amongst children instead of adults. 17.5% of blind adults are suffering sight loss due to glaucoma, and 16% due to cataracts.  


Age can play a big role in the deterioration of your eyes — the older you get, the greater the risk of losing your sight. The elderly is the most likely to suffer with sight loss, with one in five people aged 75 and older living with sight loss in the UK. This could potentially be linked to old age and a deterioration in health issues. However, research suggests that nearly half of all sight loss is avoidable, including sight loss in old age. Almost two thirds of sight loss in older people is caused by refractive error and cataracts. Both conditions can be diagnosed by a simple eye test and the majority of cases can be treated to improve the person’s sight by prescribing correct glasses or cataract surgery.

Surgical procedures are available for adults to improve visual impairment, with the most common of the procedures to remove cataracts or laser eye surgery. Cataract surgery is a straightforward procedure lasting around 30 to 45 minutes. Approximately 333,000 cataract operations are carried out annually in England alone — with an estimated 30% of people aged 65 years and older having cataracts in at least one eye. This is because around 95% of cataract instances are aged related. Of those 333,000 patients annually, approximately 40% of patient have surgery on both eyes.

Laser eye surgery and lens surgery are usually procedures that are performed at a private clinic, and therefore have to be paid for by the patient as opposed to the NHS. They can be performed to make an individual less dependent on visual aids such as glasses or contact lenses. 95% of people who have had refractive surgery are happy with the results. Additionally, around one in ten people have to have additional surgery to get the best results after laser eye surgery.

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