The bad news is that glaucoma, a condition associated with elevated pressure inside the eye, can damage the optic nerve and cause vision loss, currently affects more than three million Americans. The good news is that eye researchers throughout the country are working on preventing this disease. Recent findings also show that the burgeoning Latino population is at higher risk than expected for this disease.
January is "Glaucoma Awareness Month," and ophthalmologists at Emory Eye Center and across the country urge Americans who may be at risk for this potentially blinding disease to get a complete eye examination from an Eye M.D.
According to the National Eye Institute, some three million Americans have glaucoma. Unfortunately, half of them are unaware they have the potentially blinding disease because they have no symptoms. As the disease progresses, any of the following symptoms may appear:
- Loss of peripheral vision
- Difficulty focusing on objects
- Presence of haloes around lights
- Blurred vision
Although anyone can develop glaucoma, it tends to be more prevalent among African Americans and Hispanics. The risk also increases with age.
A recent study, the Los Angeles Latino Eye Study (LALES) completed in 2004, the largest and most comprehensive epidemiological analysis of visual impairment in Latinos in the United States, found that population to have high rates of open-angle glaucoma, a disease which damages the optic nerve. In fact, the rate of glaucoma in Latinos in their 70s was 15 percent, higher than those in Caucasians and similar to that of African Americans in this country.
"This research has provided much needed data on eye disease among the fastest growing minority group in the United States," says Elias A. Zerhouni, MD, director of the National Institutes of Health.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends eye examinations at least every one to two years for:
- African Americans and Latinos over age 40
- Anyone over age 65
- People with a family history of glaucoma
- Individuals who have experienced a serious eye injury
- People with diabetes (yearly exams are recommended)
Emory Eye Center glaucoma specialist Allen Beck, MD, says, "Glaucoma, when caught and treated early, can be managed for the remainder of one's lifetime. Because symptoms can come on gradually, they are often overlooked, and by the time we see patients, their disease has progressed to a more serious point. If these patients had been checked early on, their prognosis would be much better."
Dr. Beck was a principal investigator in a 2002 study that found that early detection and treatment reduces the progression of glaucoma by 50 percent. "Although glaucoma cannot be cured, it can be controlled and vision preserved when the patient is treated with eye drops, oral medications or outpatient laser surgery," he says. "Unfortunately, if left untreated, glaucoma can lead to blindness. A good first step toward eye health is to get a comprehensive eye exam."
A 2002 National Eye Institute study stated that more Americans than ever are facing the threat of blindness from age-related eye disease. More than one million Americans aged 40 and over are currently blind, and an additional 2.4 million are visually impaired. Although Georgians fare better than the national average, the statistics should make anyone over 40 take notice and seek annual eye exams.
About three million Americans have been diagnosed with glaucoma, and another two million do not know they have it. In Georgia, the prediction is that 62,000 persons over the age of 40 will develop glaucoma.