Although anyone of any age can get glaucoma, people over 60 are in one of the highest risk groups for the eye disease. Since January is Glaucoma Awareness Month, it’s a good time to take a look at glaucoma and how it affects seniors!
What is Glaucoma?
Glaucoma is actually a group of eye diseases that can diminish your sight. Glaucoma occurs when the optic nerve is damaged by the pressure of fluid build-up in the eye (known as intraocular pressure or IOP). At the beginning, glaucoma has no symptoms. Eventually, the peripheral (side) vision is affected, narrowing the field of vision and, if left untreated, causing total loss of visions. The most common forms of glaucoma primarily affect middle-aged and the elderly.
The two main types of glaucoma are primary open-angle glaucoma, and angle-closure glaucoma. Both are cased by pressure inside the eye.
When another disease causes or contributes to increased eye pressure causes optic nerve damage, it is referred to as secondary glaucoma.
For reasons unknown, people of African, Asian, and Hispanic descent are at higher risk of glaucoma. Other high-risk groups include:
- Those over 60
- Family members of those diagnosed with glaucoma
- Those who are severely nearsighted (myopia)
- People with low blood pressure.
Glaucoma is the second leading cause of blindness in the world. While there’s no cure, it is treatable. With early detection, blindness from glaucoma can be prevented.
How to detect glaucoma
The most important prevention measure is to get regular eye exams. The Glaucoma Research Foundation recommends an exam every one to two years for those 55-64; and every six to 12 months for those over the age of 65.
According to the National Eye Institute at the National Institutes of Health, when you visit your eye doctor you should get a comprehensive eye exam that includes:
Visual acuity test. Or an eye chart test to determine how well you see at various distances.
Visual field test. A measure your peripheral (side vision). The loss peripheral vision is a sign of glaucoma.
Dilated eye exam (Ophthalmoscopy). Drops are placed in your eyes to widen, or dilate, the pupils so the doctor can examine the shape and color of the optic nerve and look for signs of damage and other eye problems. After the exam, your close-up vision may remain blurred for several hours.
Tonometry. Inner eye pressure is measured with a tonometer. Numbing drops are applied and a small amount of pressure is applied to the eye by a tiny device or by a warm puff of air.
Pachymetry. To measure of the thickness of your cornea, a probe called a pachymeter is used. Because the thickness of your cornea may have an effect on eye pressure, this is a useful diagnostic test.
If these tests show there are issues with your eyes, your doctor may do two other tests:
Perimetry. This visual field test produces a map of your complete field of vision. If glaucoma is diagnosed, the test will be repeated on a regular basis to check the progression of the disease.
Gonioscopy. This helps determine the type of glaucoma you have. The eye is numbed with eye drops and a contact lens shows the angle between the iris and cornea – whether it’s wide or closed.
Treatment of Glaucoma
In order to treat glaucoma, the intraocular pressure must be lowered. The most common way to lower that pressure is through the use of eye drops. Several types may be used. It’s important to take these medications regularly – even if you don’t feel any symptoms. With glaucoma, the patient may not experience any symptoms, but that doesn’t mean there’s no glaucoma. So it’s important not to skip or stop medication.
Other treatment options include:
Laser surgery. This helps drain fluid from the eye by creating drainage holes with a high-intensity beam of light. The eye is numbed for this procedure, which can be performed in the doctor’s office. Medication will likely still be necessary after treatment.
Conventional surgery. A small incision is made to create a new opening that allows fluid to drain from the eye. The procedure may be performed when medicines and/or laser surgery have been unsuccessful. This surgery is usually done in the operating room.
It is estimated that over 3 million Americans have glaucoma but only half of those know they have it. Your doctor is your partner in detection and treatment of glaucoma, so be sure to get regular exams and to be ready to ask questions to best understand your options. Glaucoma Awareness Month is the perfect time to do it! For more on glaucoma, visit the National Eye Institute website.