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Don’t be Blindsided by Glaucoma

It’s been called "the sneak thief of sight." Glaucoma has no symptoms, and once vision is lost, it’s permanent. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Glaucoma is the leading cause for irreversible blindness, with an estimated 4.5 million people worldwide who are blind as a result of glaucoma.

In the United States, more than 2.2 million Americans have glaucoma, but only half actually know it. This may sound strange, but due to the nature of glaucoma – a category of eye diseases caused by increased pressure inside the eye that leads to vision loss – the progression of the disease is usually very gradual and painless. Unfortunately, once glaucoma causes vision loss, the damage is permanent and irreparable, so it’s important to get regular full eye exams to check for any changes in your vision. Glaucoma gives no warning signs, and while its most common forms affect middle aged and elderly people, it can affect anyone at any age.

Although most of us experience changes in our vision as we grow older, we can take proactive steps toward preserving our sight. In most cases, these changes can be managed with regular checkups, early detection and care. In order to stay active and independent as long as possible, you need to know what age-related changes are normal and which ones can indicate a more serious problem. Here's what you need to know about glaucoma for the best outcome in your eye health.

What is glaucoma?

Open-angle glaucoma is the most common form of glaucoma, and causes peripheral eyesight to slowly diminish. A person eventually feels like he or she is viewing the world through a tunnel or a paper towel roll.

More uncommon is a condition called angle-closure glaucoma, where pressure inside the eye causes the iris to press against another part of the eye and interfere with draining. This can sometimes cause a painful acute glaucoma attack that requires immediate medical attention.

Another condition known as low-tension glaucoma can occur without any noticeable increased eye pressure. It is thought to be caused by poor blood flow to the optic nerve.

What causes glaucoma?

There are several different types of glaucoma, and most involve the drainage system inside the eye. At the front of the eye, there's a small space called the anterior chamber, where a clear fluid constantly flows to nearby tissues. Whenever this liquid can't drain, it adds pressure to the optic nerve, eventually causing damage. Because it's a gradual process that's usually painless, glaucoma can easily go unnoticed. Regular eye exams are the best way to check for this disease.

Who is at risk for glaucoma?

Statistics from the CDC and the Glaucoma Research Foundation show that glaucoma is more common among African-Americans, even at a younger age (starting around age 40). For example, glaucoma is six to eight times more likely to affect someone of African-American descent than a Caucasian, and four times more likely to cause vision loss. Starting at the age of 60, Mexican-Americans become significantly more at risk as well.

Also at risk are people with diabetes, anyone older than 60 years, people with hypertension, and those with a family history of glaucoma. Those who have had an eye injury, or who have taken cortisone medication for an extended period of time are also at higher than average risk for developing glaucoma.

What’s the treatment for glaucoma?

Treatments for glaucoma focus on lowering the pressure inside the eye. Prescription eye drops and pills are the most common type of treatment. Laser or scalpel surgery is an option in cases where drops and pills aren’t effective. In severe cases of glaucoma, surgeons may place a small shunt in the eye to drain excess fluid and keep pressure at a manageable level.

Early detection is key

Knowing these risk factors should encourage seniors to have regular, full eye-exams once a year from age 55 on. However, if there is a family history of glaucoma, you should begin annual exams at the age of 50. Only a full vision checkup, including tonometry, visual field exam, visual acuity test, and a dilated eye exam can determine if you have any of type of glaucoma.

In the United States, there are approximately 120,000 people who are blind from glaucoma, which accounts for 12% of all cases of blindness.

January is National Glaucoma Awareness Month. Here are some ways you can help raise awareness, encourage early detection and treatment.

  • Get regular eye exams and glaucoma screenings. The test is simple and painless, and will keep you aware of your eye health status, especially if you’re at risk for glaucoma.

  • Talk to your family and friends about glaucoma. If you do have glaucoma, let your family members know.

  • Refer your family members and friends to the National Glaucoma Organization’s website at www.glaucoma.org for more information.

  • Request a free educational booklet about glaucoma at https://www.glaucoma.org/treatment/literature.php

  • Be informed about updates on glaucoma research, treatments, news and information. Your vision care provider will be able to advise you on the best resources to do this. Share information about glaucoma with your friends and family.

  • Stay positive. Although there is no cure yet, early treatment, medication or surgery can slow or stop the progress of glaucoma.