Tackling cataracts can 'empower' the elderly and prevent falls

Improved eyesight for the elderly can prevent falls, resulting in a lower economic burden and a more active ageing population, say Heinz K. Becker and Stephen Hughes.

New health technologies can create great improvements for elderly people. Particularly with regards to falls prevention there is a need to recognise people's needs and wishes when getting treated for eye conditions.

We see the different statistics, showing us that elderly people get more fragile when increasing in age, which also increases the chance of serious injuries when falling. Falls are one of the leading causes of injury-associated deaths among the people over 65. For hip fracture only, the risk of mortality is three times higher than in the general population.

Falls are also the leading cause of non-fatal injuries and hospital admissions for trauma in that age group. Given that there is an expected increase in the elderly population (the European commission foresees that there should be 58 million more people aged 65 and over by 2050), falls would have to increase accordingly, causing health problems together with an economic burden on healthcare systems.

For the US alone, the total cost of fall-related injuries for adults aged 65 and older was estimated in 2009 at €68.6bn, including €14bn in direct medical costs.

For those reasons, and given that we are both highly engaged in ageing policies and wish for the best possible care to tackle health inequalities and empower the elderly population, it is crucial that falls are prevented as much as possible, particularly due to their serious impact on the elderly population.

Falling with age can happen to everyone, although the causes can be quite different, such as the physical condition of the person, as well as certain vitamin deficiencies or visual impairments.

Cataract disease is in that perspective the main cause of visual impairments worldwide, with at least one in two affected. A study in the UK showed that cataract surgery is an effective intervention to reduce the risk of falls in elderly patients who have cataract disease. In addition, next to the traditional treatments currently reimbursed in member states, new technologies enable patients to benefit from cataract associated surgeries that enable them to live without spectacles for the rest of their lives. As such, it is of even higher importance to make sure patients are able to have an equal and timely access to treatments and, on that basis, to make an informed choice about their best possible options.

"The weakening of eyesight due to cataracts is indeed an important cause of autonomy loss for the elderly population"

We have both contributed to the writing of an expert recommendations paper on 'Healthcare and active ageing: patient choice in cataract care', which was launched in the European parliament on 9 July 2013. One of the issues for elderly people is their important contribution to society, which changes drastically when cataracts are formed.

The weakening of eyesight due to cataracts is indeed an important cause of autonomy loss for the elderly population. Here is what needs to happen to empower the elderly society in their eye care treatment: first of all, we need to make sure that the elderly population is aware of cataract disease. Second, one of the most important points to make is that regular testing for eye health needs to be encouraged, particularly for those diseases that can be early diagnosed or prevented, given that it can improve the ability to age actively and, for example, can contribute to older citizens staying active, including at work, without being forced to leave early because of a fall or because of loss of eyesight.

And third, the elderly population needs to obtain all the information possible about cataracts and cataract associated treatments to be able to make an informed decision.

Falls are a major contributor to ill health among the elderly population and by trying to prevent this from happening with proper eye care treatments and diagnosis we will have a more active ageing population.