Among the hundreds of scientific posters at the American Academy of Ophthalmology in Chicago this October was one about the prevalence of dry eye disease. The patient base for this study was nearly 10 million patients in the Department of Defense’s vast healthcare system. The overall prevalence of dry eye was 5.28% for the entire studied period (from 2003–2015). The study also analyzed annual prevalence by calendar year (from 2005–2012).

What we found most interesting was the yearly breakdown by age and how it changed over time. Dry eye disease increases with age, so you would expect increasing frequency in an aging population such as ours. But you wouldn’t necessarily expect a strong annual increase when the same age range (for example, those 40-49 years old) is tested year after year. However, this 8-year study found just such an increase.

In 2005, dry eye prevalence in the 40-49 year-old range was 0.49%. By 2012, prevalence among 40-49 year-olds had increased to 1.93%, a factor of about 4X. This means that dry eye disease was observed about four times more in 2012 than it was seen in 2005, among the same age group of 40-49 year-olds.  A similar rate of increase was seen among 18-39 year-olds and among 50+ year-olds.

The data makes it clear: something other than ageing is behind the dry-eye epidemic (although this particular study does not clarify the cause). Dr. Reza Dana, lead author of the study, notes: “We don’t know if the reported higher rates reflect a true increase in rates or just higher propensity of diagnosing the problem (due to better education of health care providers and becoming more sensitive to the problem).”