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Warmer temperatures linked to vision impairment in older adults

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Older Americans living in warmer regions are more likely to suffer from serious eye health issues than their peers in cooler climes.

A study published in the journal Ophthalmic Epidemiology has found that the chances of developing a severe vision impairment for American adults aged 65 and over living in an area with an average temperature between 50F-54.99F (10C-12.7C) were 14% higher than for those residing in counties where it’s colder.

The odds of developing a serious vision impairment increased gradually with the rise in standard temperature, with those living in places averaging 55F-59.99F (12.7C-15.5C) 24% more likely to suffer from problems. For those living in regions with an average temperature of 60F (15.5C) or above, the risk was 44%.

The relationship between average temperature and severe vision impairment remained consistent regardless of the age, sex, education, or income of participants.

First author of the study, Professor Esme Fuller-Thomson, who is the director of the University of Toronto’s Institute of Life Course and Ageing, said: “This link between vision impairment and average county temperature is very worrying if future research determines that the association is causal.

“With climate change, we are expecting a rise in global temperatures. It will be important to monitor if the prevalence of vision impairment among older adults increases in the future.”

Co-author ZhiDi Deng, a recent pharmacy graduate from the University of Toronto, added: “We know that vision problems are a major cause of disabilities and functional limitations. Serious vision impairment, for example, can increase the risk of falls, fractures, and negatively impact older adults’ quality of life.

“Taking care of vision impairments and their consequences also costs the US economy tens of billions each year. So, this link between temperature and vision impairment was quite concerning.”

The association between higher county temperature and serious vision impairment was stronger for individuals aged 65 to 79 compared to those 80 or older, males in relation to females, and White Americans in contrast to Black.

But while the research team said the observed link between average temperature and severe vision impairment might be strong,  the mechanism behind this relationship remained a mystery.

The study’s authors hypothesise several potential causes for the observed relationship, including increased ultraviolet light exposure, air pollution, infections, and folic acid degradation with increased temperature.

However, the team admitted the design of the study didn’t provide definitive insight into how temperature affects vision.

The study was based on six consecutive waves of the American Community Survey between 2012 and 2017 which surveyed a nationally representative sample of US-domiciled respondents aged 65 and older annually.

The sample analysed included 1.7 million community-dwelling and institutionalised older adults still living in the same coterminous US state in which they were born.

The question on vision impairment was “Is this person blind or does he/she have serious difficulty seeing even when wearing glasses?”

Average temperature data was obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and combined with statistics from the American Community Survey.

“We were very surprised to discover this strong association between temperature and vision impairment,” said Esme Fuller-Thomson, who is also a professor in the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and the Department of Family and Community Medicine.

She continued: “But this novel finding introduces more questions than it answers, including what the connection between average county temperature and vision impairment is.

“Moving forward, we plan to investigate whether county temperature is also associated with other disabilities among older adults, such as hearing problems and limitations in daily activities.”

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