Health Column: Are you at risk for glaucoma?

Ken Olander

Ken Olander

There are approximately 2.2 million Americans ages 40 and older who have some type of glaucoma, and unfortunately, half of these people are at risk for going blind because they do not know they have the disease. The question to ask yourself is: Am I one of them?

Glaucoma is a condition in which the optic nerve, responsible for transmitting visual information from the eye to the brain, is damaged. Although the nerve damage is usually associated with elevated pressure inside the eye, other factors can be involved. It may begin with the loss of peripheral vision and then advance to a reduction in central vision. Some forms of the condition also may occur along with other abnormalities of the eye, such as injuries from trauma, any intraocular surgery or severe diabetes.

No matter the cause of glaucoma, it can potentially lead to total vision loss. That's one reason it is the No. 2 cause of blindness in the world. And unfortunately, the exact cause of glaucoma is uncertain at this time, although work is underway to try to determine a cause and cure. This summer's observance of Vision Research Month -- sponsored by Prevent Blindness America -- highlighted the urgent need for future studies to determine treatments and cures for a number of eye diseases.

With glaucoma, it is known, however, that African-Americans and Hispanics over the age of 40; people with a family history of glaucoma; individuals older than age 60; people with other health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and migraines; those who have experienced a serious eye injury; people who are highly nearsighted; and patients on oral steroids all are considered at risk.

Anyone who falls into one or more of these categories should talk with an ophthalmologist about how often an eye examination should be conducted to ensure good vision. People with some risk factors like old age and/or a family history of any type of glaucoma often are found to have the disease with routine exams.

Most people who have glaucoma don't notice symptoms until they begin to lose some vision, though. By then, it is really too late because once the damage has occurred, it can't be reversed. And for some types of glaucoma, there are no warning signs or symptoms, including open angle glaucoma.

Vision loss from glaucoma can be prevented if it's detected and treated in time. For example, glaucoma can be controlled by lowering the intraocular pressure with eye drops, laser treatment or surgery. Intraocular pressure is something that's easily measured in the office. That's why ophthalmologists urge individuals to regularly get a complete eye exam, especially those who are at risk for developing glaucoma.

And, although glaucoma cannot be cured, it's most important to remember that early detection and treatment can usually preserve vision. Know the risk factors and have both eyes examined and a pressure test on a routine basis, especially if you're considered to be at risk. Medicare patients may qualify for a free glaucoma screening exam.

Dr. Ken Olander is a glaucoma specialist and a board-certified ophthalmologist who is on the medical staff of Blount Memorial Hospital. He operates at the Maryville Surgical Center, adjacent to the hospital's campus.

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