Glaucoma sneaks up on people, coming on so gradually that many don’t notice that they’re developing blind spots or losing peripheral vision. Glaucoma affects more than 2.3 million Americans aged 40 and older, while another two million don’t know they have it. If untreated, glaucoma causes blindness. This January during Glaucoma Awareness Month the Pennsylvania Academy of Ophthalmology (PAO) and the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s EyeSmart® campaign remind you that knowing your risk for glaucoma can save your sight.
“We need to catch and treat glaucoma as early as possible, because there’s no way to restore vision once this disease steals it,” said Roger Zelt, MD, President of the PAO. “With ongoing care, we can significantly slow glaucoma’s progression and minimize people’s vision loss.”
In the United States, higher-risk groups include people with African or Latino heritage and others with a family history of the illness. Older African Americans are five times more likely to develop glaucoma and 14 to 17 times more likely to become blind from the disease than those with European ancestry. The risk for Latino Americans rises sharply after age 60. People of any ethnicity who have a family history of glaucoma are four to nine times more susceptible.
A national survey commissioned by the EyeSmart® campaign found that only 24 percent of people in high-risk ethnic groups were aware that they were more likely to develop glaucoma. Only 16 percent of those with a family history of glaucoma or other eye diseases knew the risk factors for those diseases.
Other glaucoma risk factors include aging, nearsightedness or farsightedness, previous eye injuries, steroid use, and health conditions that affect blood flow such as migraines, diabetes and low blood pressure. People of Asian descent and those who are farsighted are at higher risk for narrow-angle glaucoma (also known as angle-closure glaucoma or closed-angle glaucoma).
The Academy recommends that people with risk factors for glaucoma or other eye diseases visit an ophthalmologist to get a complete exam, learn more about their specific risks, and find out how often they’ll need checkups. Those with no eye disease symptoms or risk factors should get a baseline screening at age 40, when signs of disease and vision changes may start to occur.
Glaucoma damages the optic nerve, the part of the eye that transmits the images we see to the brain. As glaucoma worsens, cells die in the retina — a special, light-sensitive area of the eye — which further reduces the optic nerve’s ability to relay visual signals. In the more-common form, open-angle glaucoma, usually first the peripheral vision gradually decreases, and then additional blind spots develop in the visual field. Symptoms of the less-common but more immediately dangerous narrow-angle glaucoma include blurred vision, severe eye pain and headache, rainbow-colored halos around lights and nausea and vomiting. Anyone with these symptoms needs to be seen by an Eye M.D. right away. Find an Eye M.D. in your area by visiting www.paeyemds.org.
More information on glaucoma and how to access care is available on the EyeSmart® website, www.geteyesmart.org, the American Glaucoma Society website, www.glaucomaweb.org, and the Glaucoma Research Foundation website, www.glaucoma.org.