That’s because they have glaucoma, an eye disease that damages the optic nerve and causes loss of sight that can lead to blindness. In fact, glaucoma is one of the leading causes of blindness.
While more than 2.7-million Americans age 40 and older have glaucoma, at least half are unaware, because symptoms generally go unnoticed until significant vision loss already has occurred. Glaucoma has thus been dubbed the “sneak thief of sight.”
January is National Glaucoma Awareness Month – an ideal time to learn more about glaucoma, including: risk factors; symptoms; diagnosis; treatment; and prevention.
While glaucoma is an equal-opportunity disease, there are factors that increase its likelihood, including:
- Family – Glaucoma occurs at least twice as frequently among those who have blood relatives with the disease.
- Medical conditions – Several medical conditions – such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and hypothyroidism – can increase the risk of developing glaucoma.
- Ethnicity – African Americans are four to five times more likely to develop glaucoma than other groups.
- Age – The risk of developing glaucoma increases if you’re older than 60.
- Eye trauma/conditions – An injury to the eye can increase eye pressure which, in turn, can precipitate glaucoma. Similarly, the risk of developing glaucoma increases among those who’ve been diagnosed with eye tumors, retinal detachment, eye inflammation, or lens dislocation. Having eye surgery also can trigger glaucoma, and being nearsighted or farsighted additionally raises one’s risk.
Unfortunately, glaucoma can wreak significant damage before symptoms are apparent. The most common type of glaucoma – primary open-angle glaucoma – presents subtly:
- Gradual loss of peripheral vision, usually in both eyes;
- Tunnel vision, as the disease progresses.
By contrast, the second most common type of glaucoma – acute angle-closure glaucoma – is accompanied by much more overt symptoms:
- Eye pain;
- Nausea and vomiting, along with severe eye pain;
- Sudden onset of visual disturbance, often in low light;
- Blurred vision;
- Halos around lights;
- Eye redness.
Diagnosing glaucoma generally involves conducting several tests, including:
- Intraocular pressure – The initial screening for glaucoma involves a painless procedure that measures internal eye pressure.
- Optic nerve damage – To assess optic nerve damage, special instruments are used to look directly through the pupil to the back of the eye.
- Visual field – Central to diagnosing glaucoma is assessing the extent to which a person’s peripheral vision has been impacted.
- Visual acuity – The physician is also likely to test one’s ability to see from a distance.
- Cornea thickness – Determining the thickness of each cornea – which is achieved by numbing the eyes – factors into diagnosing glaucoma.
While there currently is no cure for glaucoma, the disease certainly can be managed.
Frontline glaucoma treatment generally starts with medicated eye drops. If eye drops alone don’t sufficiently reduce eye pressure, oral medications often are prescribed. If medications prove ineffective, there are surgical interventions, including laser surgery, filtering surgery, and drainage implant surgery.
As applies to any medical condition, the overarching goal is always prevention – or, at minimum – early detection. In relation to glaucoma, that means:
- Schedule eye exams – Eye exams can detect glaucoma before irreversible damage occurs. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that adults – starting at age 40 – undergo a comprehensive eye exam every three to five years. If you’re over age 60 – or if you have other risk factors – a glaucoma screening should be completed every one to two years.
- Control blood pressure – According to a recently published study in Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science, long-term high blood increases the risk of glaucoma.
- Wear eye protection – Serious eye injuries can cause glaucoma, so it’s important to protect your eyes when engaging in sports that could result in an eye injury. Wearing eye protection also is advised when using power tools.