Sight loss research in focus as national campaign launches

A Fight for Sight campaign is to launch this weekend, to raise awareness of eye health and the need for vital eye research. Former House of Commons Speaker the Rt Hon Baroness Boothroyd will kick off the campaign with an interview on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday (5 August). Sight loss affects more than two million people in the UK, a figure that is set to double by 2050. Despite this, eye disease is a desperately under-funded area of research in the UK. Professor Anna Horwood, in the Department of Psychology and Clinical Language Studies, explains how Reading research aims to tackle these issues.

Sight loss is an under-funded area of health research

Research into sight loss is a neglected area of research funding, but imagine what it is like to lose your sight? What would you be able to do? Read? Drive? Watch TV?

We are all familiar with research into diseases like cancer and dementia, but funding for sight loss is a fraction of that set aside for those conditions. With an ageing population, more and more people are having their lives affected by not being able to see. What might be an active old age can be devastated by not being able to do things most people take for granted.

Fight for Sight is a major funder of sight loss research and funds research into sight loss from cradle to grave, but sight loss topics are rarely top of the list for more general research funding. This week’s campaign, headed by Baroness Boothroyd, is highlighting this gaping hole in research funding. Problems developing in childhood, if untreated, may remain hidden, only to lead to disability in old age.

The University of Reading has received funding to help us understand many childhood vision problems, including a recent grant from Fight for Sight to look at children’s focusing in schools. We have also done some ground breaking research into how children learn to use their eyes together – another skill that needs to be learned in childhood, or not at all.

We research eye focusing – how people co-ordinate the need to point their eyes inwards to look at near things, and simultaneously focus their eyes to stop it going blurry. If these systems don’t work well together it can lead to eye strain, double vision, blur for close work and squints. These problems are often referred by optometrists to orthoptists in hospital eye clinics.

It is a surprisingly complex topic, and our recent Fight for Sight-funded research has been about finding out whether, or how much, it matters if children don’t always focus properly as they learn to read.

We are answering some important questions, but there are so many more that need attention. Did you know?:

  • Children must learn to see and use their eyes together in a ‘critical period’ in very early childhood
  • An untreated ‘lazy eye’ (amblyopia) that develops in a toddler can mean that an elderly person who develops macular degeneration in the other eye needs to be registered as blind, rather than continuing to lead an active and independent life.
  • A noticeable squint (eye turn) can be as socially disabling as a facial disfigurement
  • People with double vision should not drive until the DVLA says they are safe, but we don’t really have robust research to know how long it takes for people with double vision to adapt to it so that they are safe to drive again
  • Stroke affects very many people’s eyesight, but not everyone gets a full assessment of their vision in the immediate aftermath of a stroke

Sight loss is a huge problem for millions of people, and we need to be addressing it now.

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