By Pat Anson, Editor
As baby boomers enter their retirement years, health care costs for age-related conditions such as osteoarthritis and Alzheimer’s disease are expected to soar. Not drawing as much attention is the likelihood of similarly rising expenses for cataract surgery.
A new Mayo Clinic study found that more people are getting the vision-improving procedure, seeking it at younger ages, and having both eyes repaired within a few months, rather than only treating one eye. The findings are published in the Journal of Cataract & Refractive Surgery.
“Cataract surgery rates are rising in all age groups between 50 and 90, but the greatest increase is in the 70- and 80-year-olds. And part of that is that our older population, or the aging baby boomers, are working longer, they want to be more active, they have more demands on their vision,” says senior author Jay Erie, MD, a Mayo Clinic ophthalmologist.
“That’s why they’re looking for surgery sooner — so that they can remain independent, remain active, continue to work.”
By the time they reach 80, over half of all Americans will have cataracts, a clouding of the lens inside the eye that impairs vision and can even lead to blindness. Cataracts can blur vision, worsen glare from lights and make it difficult to drive safely or perform routine household tasks.
In cataract surgery, the eye lens is removed and usually replaced with an artificial lens. In the United States, cataracts cost an estimated $6.8 billion to treat each year. Researchers estimated the cataract caseload is expected to rise from 22 million today to 30 million people by 2020.
Despite the common nature of cataracts, the U.S. has little population-based data on cataract surgery, information that can help estimate demand. For the Mayo study, researchers mined the National Institutes of Health-funded Rochester Epidemiology Project to identify cataract surgeries in Olmsted County, Minn., from 2005-11.
The project, a partnership of Mayo Clinic, Olmsted Medical Center and other health providers, makes the county one of few places worldwide where researchers can examine medical data on virtually everyone to see how often conditions strike and whether treatments succeed.
The research found:
- Women were significantly more likely to have cataract surgery than men.
- There were significant increases in cataract surgery among people in all age groups, except those 90 and older.
- Cataract surgery has increased steadily, peaking in 2011 at a rate of 1,100 per 100,000 people.
- 60% of people receiving cataract surgery on one eye returned within three months to have it performed on the second eye, a significant increase over the number in a previous Mayo study.
The trend raises questions about treatment costs and the resources needed to meet demand, Dr. Erie says. Medicare, for example, typically covers cataract surgery for its patients; in general, cataract surgery on a Medicare patient costs roughly $3,000 per eye.