A leading cause of blindness, glaucoma is treatable through regular eye exams and early detection.

Glaucoma is an eye disease that affects more than 2.2 million Americans, yet only half know that they have it. A condition with virtually no symptoms that gradually steals vision, it is a leading cause of blindness in the U.S., more than 120,000 are blind from glaucoma.

While there is no cure for glaucoma, which can cause permanent vision loss if left untreated, medication and/or surgery can make it possible to manage the condition and stop further vision impairment. Early detection through regular comprehensive eye exams and careful, lifelong treatment can help maintain vision in most people.

Age is one of the primary risk factors for glaucoma.Other areas include a family history of glaucoma, being of African or Asian descent, or having high myopia (nearsightedness). Hispanics/Latinos are also at higher risk, particularly in older age groups. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that adults with no signs or risk factors for eye disease get a baseline eye disease screening at age 40, the time when early signs of disease and changes in vision may start to occur. Based on results of the initial screening, necessary intervals for follow-up exams can then be recommended.

The two main types of glaucoma are known as open,angle. The most common and angle-closure glaucoma. In most types of glaucoma, there is an imbalance in the production and exit of fluid from the eye, resulting in elevated pressure that causes damage to the optic nerve. This imbalance and resulting elevated pressure over time may result in vision loss. Although most glaucoma shows up in adulthood, it can occur in babies and children. In this type of developmental glaucoma, it is thought that there has been an incorrect or incomplete development of the eyes drainage canals during the prenatal period. Some types of developmental glaucoma can be corrected with microsurgery. However, as with any glaucoma, regular checkups with a glaucoma specialist, a medical doctor trained in the detection and treatment of eye disease and specializing in glaucoma, are critical even after it has been controlled.

Eye doctors use a number of different assessments to detect glaucoma. An eye examination will check the internal pressure of your eye (tonometry) and the shape and color of your optic nerve (ophthalmoscopy or dilated eye exam). These exams are routine and painless. If the eye pressure is out of normal range and/or the optic nerve looks unusual, your doctor may also check your complete field of vision (perimetry), the angle in the eye where the iris meets the cornea (gonioscopy), and the thickness of the cornea (pachymetry).

REGULAR EYE EXAMS SHOULD FOLLOW THIS SCHEDULE:

  • before age 40, every two to four years
  • from age 40 to age 54, every one to three years
  • from age 55 to 64, every one to two years
  • after age 65, every six to 12 months

People with high risk factors for glaucoma should be tested every year or two after age 35.

So what can you do to protect your eyes? A regular program of moderate exercise will benefit your overall health, and studies have shown that activities such as walking or jogging several times a week can help to lower eye pressure. Wearing protective eyewear when engaged in sports activities or home improvement projects helps reduce the risk of eye injury. Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet with plenty of antioxidant fruits and vegetables will help overall health, including your eye health. But ultimately, the most important step is to get a comprehensive eye examination for early detection and treatment.

Learn more at the Glaucoma Research Foundation website, glaucoma.org, where you can also order the free booklet Understanding and Living with Glaucoma.

Andrew G. Iwach, M.D., is Executive Director of the Glaucoma Center of San Francisco, Associate Clinical Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of California at San Francisco, and a faculty instructor at California Pacific Medical Center Department of Ophthalmology. He is also Executive Director of the Glaucoma Research and Education Group, and currently serves as Board Chair at Glaucoma Research Foundation in San Francisco.