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Racial and Ethnic Differences in Macular Degeneration: Asian Americans

Macular degeneration is currently the leading cause of vision loss in America. It affects more than 10 million people – more than cataracts and glaucoma combined. Macular degeneration does not affect all groups of people at the same rate. It affects Caucasians more than Asian Americans, people of Hispanic/Latino background, and African Americans.1

This article covers general information about macular degeneration as well as what we know about this disease among Asian Americans.

How does macular degeneration develop?

The retina is a thin layer of light-sensitive cells at the back of the eye. It is responsible for receiving light energy through the pupil and transforming that energy into signals that go to the brain.2 This is the basic process that enables us to see.

Macular degeneration happens when the central part of your retina, called the macula, is damaged. This leads to impaired vision, particularly in the center of your eye. This is the area responsible for your ability to read, drive, recognize faces, and see fine detail.1

About 80 percent of people with macular degeneration have what’s known as dry AMD. In dry AMD, you develop small clumps of fatty, yellow-looking cells in the back of the eye. These clumps are called drusen.3 Over time, drusen can grow and cause more damage to your vision.

There is also a less common form of macular degeneration called wet AMD. Here new blood vessels grow and leak fluid onto the macula, which causes damage.3

What is age-related macular degeneration?

Although macular degeneration can develop in children and teens, by far the most cases of the disease occur in people over 50. That’s why the condition is frequently known as age-related macular degeneration, or AMD.3

Different numbers among different ethnic groups

In the United States, white Americans have the highest chance of developing AMD. The numbers are lower for people of different ethnic backgrounds.

So far, though, there have not been many studies looking at AMD among non-white Americans. Additionally, the limited data we have does not often look at Asian Americans as a separate ethnic group. However, that is beginning to change.

As of 2010, the following number of Americans over 50 have developed AMD4:

  • Caucasians: 2.5 percent
  • Latino/Hispanic: 0.9 percent
  • African-Americans: 0.9 percent
  • Other (including Asian-Americans): 0.9 percent

The racial difference is even greater when you look at AMD by age 804:

  • Caucasians: 14 percent
  • Latino/Hispanic: 2 percent
  • African-Americans: 2 percent
  • Other (including Asian-Americans): 2 percent

Macular degeneration in Asian Americans

Recent research has started to look at AMD in Asian Americans specifically. Results show that Asian Americans are not all the same when it comes to AMD. For example, one study found major differences in the risk of disease for Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, and Pakistani Americans.5

Key differences compared to Caucasians

One recent research study looked at AMD in Chinese Americans, specifically. The researchers found some surprising differences compared to AMD in whites. These include6:

  • Only 15 percent of Chinese Americans have dry AMD, compared to 80 percent of white Americans.
  • 85 percent of Chinese Americans have wet AMD, compared to 20 percent of white Americans.
  • More Chinese Americans get AMD than do Chinese people living in China. This suggests that there are lifestyle or environmental factors that increase your chance of developing AMD.
  • Chinese Americans with diabetes are 3 times more likely to lose vision than people without diabetes.
  • The number of Chinese Americans with vision loss due to diabetes is less than Latinos in Los Angeles or Chinese people living in China.

This research is important, because Asians are the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States. Now doctors will know to be on the lookout for signs of wet AMD in their Chinese-American patients, so they can work to prevent or treat any potential vision loss.6

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