New research has revealed that diabetes-related eye disease is no longer the leading cause of blindness in working age adults.
The data comes from a study published in BMJ Open which examined the causes of blindness in people aged 16 to 64 in England and Wales. Experts at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London looked at the number of people registered as blind in the year 1999/2000 and compared it with data from the 2009/10.
The figures showed that between 1 April 1999 and 31 March 2000 the leading cause of blindness among working adults was diabetic retinopathy and maculopathy (17.7%), two of the long-term complications of diabetes. This was followed by inherited retinal disorders (15.8%) and optic atrophy (10.1%).
However, during the same 12 month period ten years later the researchers found that hereditary retinal disorders had overtaken diabetic eye disease as the most common cause of blindness, accounting for a fifth (20.2%) of all cases that year compared to 14.4% for diabetic retinopathy/maculopathy.
According to the research team, diabetes had been the main cause of blindness among working adults in England and Wales since at least 1963. With diabetes rates rising considerably over the last few decades, they conclude that the drop in rates of diabetes-related blindness may be attributed to improvements in eye checks.
Dr Anne Mackie, director of programmes for the UK National Screening Committee, said the NHS Diabetic Eye Screening Programmen, introduced by the UK NSC in 2003, invites approximately 2.5 million people for screening every year. Of those, more than 74,000 were referred to hospital eye services for further investigation in 2013, which resulted in around 4,600 diabetic patients being treated to help prevent vision loss.
“Before the launch of the diabetic eye programmen, less than half of the people with diabetes had regular eye screening,” she added. “Even where they did, the quality of the test varied from one place to another and many developed serious eye problems that could have been prevented.”
While the research suggests good progress has been made in spotting and diagnosing diabetic eye-problems at an early stage, Simon O’Neill, director of health intelligence at Diabetes UK, stressed that “diabetes remains the leading cause of preventable sight loss in working age people.
“Also, while the rate of blindness has reduced, the rising number of people with diabetes means the actual number of people with diabetes who lose their sight has stayed about the same so there is still much work that needs to be done.”

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