2010-01-20 / Seniors

Glaucoma Sneaks Up On Seniors

Dear Savvy Senior,

What are the risk factors for glaucoma? My 82-year-old father lost much of his vision from it about 10 years ago and my sister was recently diagnosed with it, and neither had a clue anything was wrong.

Blindsided

Dear Blindsided:

Glaucoma is called the “silent thief of sight” for a reason. With no early warning signs or symptoms, most people who have glaucoma don’t realize it until their vision begins to deteriorate. Here’s what you should know.

What is Glaucoma?

Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases that can damage the optic nerve and cause vision loss and blindness if they’re not treated. This typically happens because the fluids in the eye don’t drain properly, causing increased pressure in the eyeball. The two main types of glaucoma that affect most people are:

Open-angle glaucoma. This is the most common form, accounting for around 80 percent of cases in the U.S. This type progresses very slowly when the eye’s drainage canals become clogged over time, leading to blind spots in the peripheral vision. By the time an affected person notices, the permanent damage is already done.

Angle-closure glaucoma: This type occurs when the drainage canal gets blocked, causing a rapid increase in eye pressure. Symptoms include nausea, blurred vision and severe pain. Anyone with these symptoms should get to an emergency room immediately.

Are You At Risk?

It’s estimated that more than 4 million Americans today have glaucoma, but only about half of them know that they have it. Are you one of them? Here are the key factors that can increase your risks:

Age. While anyone can get glaucoma, people over the age of 60 are six times more likely to develop it than those younger.

Family history. Having a brother, sister or parent with glaucoma increases your risk of developing this disease by four to nine times.

Race. African-Americans are six to eight times more likely to get glaucoma than are Caucasians, and they are much more likely to experience permanent blindness as a result. Hispanic Americans also have an increased risk of developing glaucoma earlier in life. Asians also have a higher risk for developing angle-closure glaucoma.

Health conditions. Diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, hypothyroidism, migraine headaches and even being nearsighted can increase your risk.

Medications. Studies show that longterm use or high doses of steroid drugs or cortisone can put you at a higher risk.

Injury. An injury or trauma to the eye can cause glaucoma, even years after it happened.

What to Do

Early detection is the key to guarding against glaucoma. If you’re age 45 and older and have any risk factors, you need to get a comprehensive eye examination every year or two. If you notice some loss of peripheral vision, get to the eye doctor right away.

While there’s currently no cure for glaucoma, most cases can easily be treated with prescription eye drops, which can prevent further vision loss (but cannot restore vision already lost from glaucoma). If that doesn’t work, your doctor may recommend oral medication, laser treatments, surgery or a combination of these.

Screening Help

If you have Medicare Part B, annual eye examinations are covered for those at high risk for glaucoma. Also check out the Glaucoma EyeCare program through EyeCare America (www.eyecareamerica.org; 800-222- 3937). This is a nationwide program that provides free or low-cost glaucoma eye exams and initiation of treatment, if needed. There are no income restrictions.

Savvy Tip: The Glaucoma Research Foundation offers comprehensive information on its Web site, along with a variety of free educational booklets you can order. Visit www.glaucoma.org or call 800-826- 6693.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit www.savvysenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to “The NBC Today Show” and author of The Savvy Senior books.

The Gazette does not endorse the contents of The Savvy Senior. Check with professionals about the contents of this column.

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