Eyesight is often taken for granted, and living without it can be a challenge for many. 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. However, once vision is lost, it’s permanent; 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. Combined with an aging population, there is an epidemic of blindness looming if awareness is not raised about the importance of regular eye examinations to preserve vision.
Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases that can gradually steal sight without warning. Although the most common forms primarily affect the middle-aged and the elderly, glaucoma can affect people of all ages. Glaucoma damages the optic nerve, which acts as a cable that carries images from the eye to the brain. Vision loss is caused by damage to this nerve which is located in the back of the eye. This damage is often caused by abnormally high pressure in the eye and often affects peripheral or side vision.
In the United States, approximately 120,000 men and women are blind due to glaucoma. 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. Among African American and Latino populations, glaucoma is more prevalent. There is a significant increased risk for siblings of persons that are diagnosed with glaucoma, those with diabetes, and people who are severely nearsighted.
The World Health Organization estimates that 4.5 million people worldwide are blind due to glaucoma, which is the second leading cause of blindness in the world. In the most common form, there are virtually no symptoms. 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. If there is a risk of glaucoma, there should be more frequent screening. Ask a healthcare provider to recommend the right screening schedule for yourself or friends.
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.