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Associations among cataract prevalence, sunlight hours, and altitude in the Himalayas

The relationship between cataract prevalence, altitude, and sunlight hours was investigated in a large national probability sample survey of 105 sites in the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, December 1980 through April 1981. Cataract of senile or unknown etiology was diagnosed by ophthalmologists in 873 of 30,565 full-time life-long residents of survey sites. Simultaneously, the altitude of sites was measured using a standard mountain altimeter. Seasonally adjusted average daily duration of sunlight exposure for each site was calculated by a method which took into account latitude and obstructions along the skyline. Age- and sex-standardized cataract prevalence was 2.7 times higher in sites at an altitude of 185 meters or less than in sites over 1000 meters. Cataract prevalence was negatively correlated with altitude (r = -0.533, p less than 0.0001). However, a positive correlation between cataract prevalence and sunlight was observed (r = 0.563, p less than 0.0001). Sites with an average of 12 hours of sunlight exposure had 3.8 times as much cataract as sites with an average of only seven hours of exposure. Sunlight was blocked from reaching certain high altitude sites by tall neighboring mountains.