Rising Glaucoma Rates Make Testing More Important Than Ever
< Jan. 27, 2010 > -- Glaucoma is the main cause of sight loss in the U.S. -- and more people are likely to face this serious eye disease in the near future. This is because of the rising number of people who are older than 60, African-American or Hispanic, or who are obese. All of these are factors that put people at higher risk for glaucoma.
Eye exams are the only way to find the disease before it damages your vision. So with more people in the groups at higher risk, regular eye exams are even more important, eye experts say. Early detection of glaucoma is the key to preserving sight. Since January is Glaucoma Awareness Month, now is the ideal time to learn who is at risk for glaucoma and how it can be detected while it's still treatable.
Glaucoma: The Sneak Thief of Sight
While it affects more than 4 million Americans, only about half have been diagnosed with the disease, according to the Glaucoma Research Foundation. Often, people with glaucoma don't even know they have it until it has affected their eyesight.
"The big thing about glaucoma is that it doesn't have any signs or symptoms," explains Mildred Olivier, M.D., of the Midwest Glaucoma Center in Hoffman Estates, IL, and a board member of Prevent Blindness America.
"By the time someone says, 'Gosh, I have a problem,' they are in the end stages of glaucoma," says Dr. Olivier. "It's already taken most of their sight away. That's why we call glaucoma 'the sneak thief of sight.'"
Glaucoma is most often caused by an increase in the normal fluid pressure inside the eye, according to the National Eye Institute. The added pressure damages the optic nerve, the bundle of more than a million nerve fibers that send signals from the eye to the brain. Usually, the first sign of glaucoma is a loss of side, or peripheral vision. By then, it's too late to save much of an individual's eyesight.
Glaucoma causes 9 to 12 percent of all cases of sight loss in the U.S., with about 120,000 people blinded by the disease. "Glaucoma is the number one cause of irreversible but avoidable blindness," says Louis B. Cantor, M.D., chairman and professor of ophthalmology at the Indiana University School of Medicine and director of the glaucoma service at an eye institute in Indianapolis, IN.
Age and Race Increase Risk the Most
Age is the most common risk factor for glaucoma. So as people live longer, the number of glaucoma cases will naturally increase. People who are African-American or Hispanic also have a higher risk of glaucoma. Since the population of both groups is growing in the U.S., so too will the incidence of glaucoma.
Glaucoma already is the leading cause of blindness among African-Americans. It's five times more common in African-American than white people, according to the U.S. National Eye Institute.
"Not only do African-Americans get more glaucoma, they get it younger and it's more resistant to treatment," says Dr. Cantor.
Recent research has found that Hispanic people develop glaucoma at about the same rate as African-Americans, according to the Glaucoma Research Foundation. Also, glaucoma rates go up dramatically for Hispanic people older than 60.
Medical experts believe that the obesity epidemic will contribute to a rise in glaucoma cases too.
Though more people are likely to be diagnosed with the disease in the future, vision loss may be avoided with early detection of glaucoma. "Vision loss is preventable," Dr. Cantor says. "Many people with glaucoma can enjoy vision for the rest of their lives if the disease is detected early and treated promptly."
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Save Your Sight with Regular Eye Exams
Health experts recommend people at increased risk for glaucoma get eye exams that include dilation at least every two years. That includes the following groups:
If you're already being treated for glaucoma, take your glaucoma medicine every day and see your eye care professional regularly.
If caught early, treatment can delay the disease's progress. Glaucoma treatments include medicines, laser and conventional surgery, or a combination of these. While these treatments may save remaining vision, they can't bring back sight already lost from glaucoma.
Always consult your physician for more information.