Glaucoma is often thought of as an older person’s disease. While the risk of developing the eye disorder increases after the age of 60, glaucoma can strike people at any age.
“This disease is a leading cause of vision loss and blindness in the U.S.,” says Dr. Bill Simmons of Montana Eyecare. “Yet, the disease is rarely on people’s radar. Because it is usually asymptomatic in its early stages, few people even know that they even have a problem.”
What are the signs and symptoms?
Glaucoma refers to a group of eye disorders that cause progressive damage to the optic nerve. The disease can cause loss of vision, and, if untreated, blindness.
• Primary open-angle glaucoma occurs when the fluid pressure inside the eye increases. The change in pressure causes gradual damage to the optic nerve and subsequent loss of nerve fibers. Most people with this form of the disease only notice a problem when their peripheral vision is affected. By then, the disease is significantly advanced.
• Acute angle-closure glaucoma is a less common form of the disorder. It comes on abruptly as the result of a rapid rise in eye pressure. In this form, severe vision loss can occur within a day of onset. Symptoms include nausea, eye pain, blurred vision and seeing halos or colored rings around lights. If you experience these symptoms, treat it as a medical emergency and call your eye specialist immediately.
• Secondary glaucoma occurs as the result of an injury or other disease of the eye.
It can be caused by certain medications, a variety of medical conditions, as well as physical damage.
• Normal or low-tension glaucoma develops when eye pressure is in normal range, yet the optic nerve still becomes damaged. The cause of this type of glaucoma remains a mystery. Some eye specialists speculate that people with this problem have a highly sensitive optic nerve or they could have reduced blood supply to the optic nerve as a result of hardening of the arteries. Also, researchers have recently found that patients with obstructive sleep apnea are at a higher risk for developing low-tension glaucoma.
Who is at risk?
Anyone can develop glaucoma, but these groups are most likely to be affected:
• African Americans ages 40 and over
• Everyone over age 60, particularly Hispanics/Latinos
• People with a family history of the disease
• Individuals with diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease
How is it diagnosed?
The best way to prevent the disease is to have a comprehensive, dilated eye exam once every two years. “Since glaucoma is a progressive disorder, regular exams are vital in catching any change in the appearance of the optic nerve,” says Dr. Simmons.
Though there is no cure for glaucoma, early diagnosis and treatment, including prescription eye drops or surgery, can control the advancement of the disorder, especially in its early stages.
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