Background: Bilateral blindness unrelated to simple refractive error is twice as prevalent among blacks as among whites, although the difference narrows among the elderly. The reasons for this race- and age-related pattern are uncertain.
Methods and results: A randomly selected, stratified, multistage cluster sample of 2395 blacks and 2913 whites 40 years of age and older in East Baltimore underwent detailed ophthalmic examinations by a single team. We identified 64 subjects who were blind in both eyes. The leading causes of blindness were unoperated senile cataract (accounting for blindness in 27 of the total of 128 eyes), primary open-angle glaucoma (17 eyes), and age-related macular degeneration (16 eyes). Together, these three disorders accounted for 47 percent of all blindness in this sample. Unoperated cataract accounted for 27 percent of all blindness among blacks, among whom it was four times more common than among whites; whites were almost 50 percent more likely than blacks to have undergone cataract extraction before the age of 80 (P less than 0.002). Primary open-angle glaucoma accounted for 19 percent of all blindness among blacks; it was six times as frequent among blacks as among whites and began 10 years earlier, on average. By contrast, age-related macular degeneration resulting in blindness was limited to whites, among whom it was the leading cause of blindness (prevalence, 2.7 per 1000; 95 percent confidence interval, 1.2 to 5.4); it affected 3 percent of all white subjects 80 years of age or older.
Conclusions: The pattern of blindness in urban Baltimore appears to be different among blacks and whites. Whites are far more likely to have age-related macular degeneration, and blacks to have primary open-angle glaucoma. The high rate of unoperated cataracts among younger blacks and among elderly subjects of both races suggests that health services are underused. Half of all blindness in this urban population is probably preventable or reversible.