Skip to main content

Navajo Nation Study: Cataracts, Unmet Need for Eyeglasses Are Top Two Causes of Blindness

Conducting the first large-scale eye study of its kind on the Navajo Nation, John A. Moran Eye Center researchers determined cataracts and the unmet need for eyeglasses are the top causes of blindness for the country’s largest Native American tribe.

Publishing in Vision, the researchers examined records from the first visits of 2,251 patients to Moran physicians on the Navajo Nation between 2013 and 2021. Among first-time patients without eyeglasses, 20.67% had mild visual impairment, 9.71% had moderate to severe impairment, and 3.13% were blind. Cataracts, a clouding of the eye’s lens that occurs with aging, were the most common cause of blindness, affecting 40% of these patients. The unmet need for eyeglasses was the second most common cause at 33%. The study additionally found 17.71% of diabetic patients had diabetic retinopathy, a potentially blinding complication of diabetes.

“Until now, no large-scale study of distance and near vision impairment has been conducted on the Navajo Nation,” says Craig J. Chaya, MD, medical director of Moran’s Global Outreach Division and a study author. “We believe data is the first step toward long-term resolution of eye care health inequities for tribes in the United States. We will use this data to inform our continued efforts on the Navajo Nation.”

A patient at a Moran Eye Center outreach clinic in 2022.
A patient is pictured before an eye exam at a September 2022 clinic at Navajo Mountain High School. More than 100 adults and 30 children received exams and eyeglasses or updated prescriptions at the clinic, one of several hosted by the outreach team in 2022. Patients with more intensive needs, like retina and glaucoma issues, were scheduled for surgeries or follow-up procedures.

Moran’s Global Outreach Division has partnered with Utah Navajo Health Services to provide eye care and sight-restoring cataract surgeries on the Navajo Nation since 2013. While the study was limited to Moran patients, it gives key insights into eye care needs on the Nation, which encompasses portions of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico and is home to an estimated 173,000 people. Many residents live remotely without adequate access to eye care. They may also experience high rates of sun exposure and have little access to nutritious food, contributing to the development of cataracts and diabetes.

The published study is “Patterns of Blindness on the Navajo Nation: A 9-Year Study,” authored by Ryan T. Wallace, MD; Michael Murri, MD; Lori McCoy; Esteban Peralta; Jeff Pettey, MD, MBA; and Chaya.