How Well Can We See? Prevalence of Vision Problems in the United States

Eight maps showing prevalence of different vision problems in the U.S. by State

Eight maps showing prevalence of different vision problems in the U.S. by State

We recently spoke with two Baylor professors who created a machine learning smartphone app that can detect leukocoria in pictures, a symptom which is often an indicator of growing eye cancer. They opened this app up for a free download so anyone can check themselves or their family for leukocoria. I highly recommend getting the app (for iPhone and Andorid).

This story lead me to the question, “how prevalent vision problems are in the United States?” As I looked around, I came across a great study and data set provided by Prevent Blindness. (They opened up their data set here.)

I created the above data viz to highlight this data set. Across the eight different vision problems they studied and collected data on, the distribution varies widely across states, probably not something we’d expect to see. Please note that each map is on a different scale—the visual is meant to show relative distributions of the specific vision problems noted. One quick note of interest is on the glaucoma map is entirely blue because of one outlier, Washington, DC, which has a very high percentage relative to every other state.

Glaucoma prevalence in the United States

If you aren’t familiar with each of the vision problems listed, here are their definitions:

AMD (Age-Related Macular Degeneration): “A common eye condition and a leading cause of vision loss among people age 50 and older. It causes damage to the macula, a small spot near the center of the retina and the part of the eye needed for sharp, central vision, which lets us see objects that are straight ahead.”

Glaucoma: “Glaucoma is a group of eye conditions that damage the optic nerve, which is vital to good vision. This damage is often caused by an abnormally high pressure in your eye.”

Myopia: Nearsightedness (meaning you have a difficult time seeing things far away).

Cataract: “A cataract is a clouding of the eye’s natural lens, which lies behind the iris and the pupil.”

Diabetic Retinopathy: “Chronically high blood sugar from diabetes is associated with damage to the tiny blood vessels in the retina. . . [which] can cause blood vessels in the retina to leak fluid or hemorrhage (bleed), distorting vision.”

Hyperopia: Farsightedness (meaning you have a difficult time seeing things up close)

Vision Impairment: “A decreased ability to see to a degree that causes problems not fixable by usual means, such as glasses.”

Blindness: “Complete blindness means you cannot see anything and do not see light.”

What the map above doesn’t show easily is how prevalent these problems are in contrast to each other. For that, we have the chart below:

Prevalence of eight vision problems in the U.S. compared against each other

It’s interesting to note that one in four Americans have nearsightedness. (I happen to be one of them). It is by far the most common vision problem in the United States.

Going back to the distributions of the various vision problems, we can also call out the states with the most and least prevalence for each of these vision problems:

States with the most and least prevalence of vision problems in the U.S.

There are few interesting points here. North Dakota shows up in the bottom three states across more categories than any other state (five of them), while Georgia shows up in the top more often than any other state (four of them). Washington, DC, is either the very top or the very bottom in several categories.

Data can open our eyes to a lot about the world we didn’t know before. If you’d like to learn more about vision problems in the United States, check out visionproblemsus.org.

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