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January is National Glaucoma Awareness Month

Eyesight is often taken for granted and living without it can be a challenge. Over three million Americans and over 60 million people worldwide have glaucoma, which is often referred to as “the sneak thief of sight,” because there are often no symptoms of its presence. As much as 40% of vision can be lost without a person noticing, which experts estimate is the case in half of those who suffer from glaucoma.

Glaucoma damages the optic nerve, which acts as a cable that carries images from the eye to the brain. This damage is often caused by abnormally high pressure in the eye and often affects peripheral or side vision. Although the most common forms primarily affect the middle-aged and the elderly, glaucoma can affect people of all ages, as every person has their own level of eye pressure tolerance.

In the United States, approximately 120,000 men and women are blind due to glaucoma, making it the leading cause of irreversible blindness. The National Eye Institute projects this number will reach 4.2 million by 2030 (a 58% increase) and will particularly affect more people over the age of 60. If glaucoma runs in the family, there is a nine times greater risk to other members developing this disease.   

Glaucoma costs the U.S. economy $2.86 billion every year in direct costs and productivity losses. 

The largest risk factors for glaucoma include:

  • High eye pressure
  • Family history of glaucoma
  • Age 40 and older for African Americans
  • Age 60 and older for the general population, especially Latino Americans
  • Thin cornea
  • Suspicious optic nerve appearance with increased cupping (size of cup, the space at the center of the optic nerve, is larger than normal)

Additional potential risk factors for glaucoma include severe nearsightedness, diabetes, eye surgery or injury, high blood pressure, and overuse of corticosteroids. The best way for protecting your sight from glaucoma is to get regular comprehensive eye examinations; if needed, treatment can begin immediately. As a general rule, the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends having a comprehensive eye exam every five to ten years for those under 40 years old; every two to four years for those 40 to 54 years old; every one to three years for those 55 to 64 years old; and every one to two years for those older than 65. Depending on an individual’s family history and health, there should be more frequent screenings. Ask a healthcare provider to recommend the right screening schedule for you.

Regular, moderate exercise may help prevent glaucoma by reducing eye pressure; talk with a doctor about an appropriate exercise program. Take any prescribed eye drops regularly, as they can significantly reduce the risk that high eye pressure will progress to glaucoma. Wearing eye protection, especially when using power tools or playing high-speed racket sports in enclosed courts, can prevent serious eye injuries which can lead to glaucoma.

While most people will not notice any problems with their sight, some may have brief episodes of high eye pressure which can be mistaken as migraine headaches, or they may have hazy or blurred vision, severe eye and head pain, nausea, or vomiting (accompanying severe eye pain), the appearance of rainbow-colored circles around bright lights, or sudden sight loss. If any of these symptoms appear, seek immediate care from an eye doctor.

There is no cure for glaucoma; however, medication or surgery can slow or prevent further vision loss. The appropriate treatment depends upon the type of glaucoma, among other factors. Early detection is vital to stopping the progress of the disease.

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