Baby Boomers Pushing Surge in Therapies for Fading Eyesight

The number of older Americans getting help for fading eyesight almost tripled by 2007 from a decade earlier as the nation aged and treatment improved with approaches such as Roche Holding AG’s Lucentis.

Medicare recipients in 2007 received 812,413 injections into the eye with drugs like Roche’s Lucentis for macular degeneration or Avastin, up from fewer than 5,000 a year from 1997 to 2001, a study in the Archives of Ophthalmology found. Use of rival drugs, laser treatments and photodynamic therapy, such as QLT Inc.’s Visudyne, plunged, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins University’s Wilmer Eye Institute.

A review of 146,942 patients in Medicare, the U.S. government program for the elderly and disabled, found Lucentis and Avastin are safe for the heart, easing concern they could unintentionally increase heart attacks, bleeding, stroke or deaths. While Avastin is approved to treat cancer, it works the same way as Lucentis and is much cheaper when doctors inject a tiny amount into the eye. It was linked to heart complications at higher doses used to treat tumors, said researchers from Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina.

Patients “always ask us about the side effects of the injection,” Scott Cousins, an ophthalmologist at Duke Eye Center, said in a statement. “Now I can tell them that these medications appear to be safe.”

There were 1.24 million eye-improvement procedures done in 2007, compared with 432,755 in 1997, according to the Johns Hopkins research.

About 1.5 percent of those older than 40, or 1.75 million Americans, have age-related macular degeneration, according to the National Eye Institute. The number is expected to reach 3 million by 2020 as the population ages, the agency says. Avastin and Lucentis are used for the “wet” form of the disease, which destroys vision as tiny blood vessels leak into the light- sensing cells of the macula, the most sensitive part of the eye.

The drugs, from Basel, Switzerland-based Roche, are genetically engineered antibodies that block a protein used to form the damaging blood vessels that proliferate in the eyes of patients with AMD.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michelle Fay Cortez in Minneapolis at mcortez@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net

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