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Glaucoma Week Aims to Make Seniors More Aware of Second Leading Cause of Blindness

Older Americans at high risk of this ‘sneak thief of sight’ says National Eye Institute

Normal vision Glaucoma vision
Read more about glaucoma below

Jan. 11, 2012 – Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD) is the major cause of blindness and the primary victims are senior citizens. The National Eye Institute, however, is pointing out this month that older people need to also be aware of glaucoma, the second leading cause of blindness that most often attacks older people. This is Glaucoma Awareness Month in the U.S. and a good time for the simple eye test.

According to Prevent Blindness America, glaucoma is often called the "sneak thief of sight" since half of all patients who have it do not know it, because central vision may not be affected until later stages of the disease.

There are no symptoms but once vision is lost, it's permanent, according to the Glaucoma Research Foundation. As much as 40% of vision can be lost without a victim noticing.

 

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Glaucoma is actually the leading cause of preventable blindness. Moreover, among African American and Latino populations, glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness, and it is more prevalent. Glaucoma is 6 to 8 times more common in African Americans than Caucasians.

Glaucoma is a leading cause of blindness in the world, second only to cataracts, and the leading cause of blindness in African-Americans.

According to research funded by Prevent Blindness America, glaucoma costs the U.S. economy $2.86 billion every year in direct medical costs for outpatient, inpatient and prescription drug services.

As part of January’s National Glaucoma Awareness Month, Prevent Blindness America is joining with other leading eye health organizations in encouraging everyone to educate themselves on the disease.

Over 2.2 million Americans, and over 60 million people worldwide, have glaucoma.

In the United States, approximately 120,000 are blind from glaucoma, accounting for 9% to 12% of all cases of blindness.

Glaucoma is actually a group of eye diseases that damage the optic nerve and destroy eyesight. Unfortunately, nearly half of those with glaucoma are not even aware that they have it.

Statement from National Eye Institute

Paul A. Sieving, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Eye Institute, released the following statement on glaucoma and Glaucoma Awareness Month.

The National Eye Institute (NEI) leads research toward better prevention, detection, and treatment of this often silent but devastating disease. During Glaucoma Awareness Month, NEI highlights research advances, showcases education and awareness efforts, and reminds Americans that early detection and treatment is the best way to prevent vision loss. NEI advises all Americans at risk of glaucoma to get a comprehensive dilated eye exam every one to two years.

Glaucoma is a group of diseases that damages the optic nerve, the bundle of nerve cells that relays visual information from the eye to the brain. In the most common form of glaucoma, called primary open angle glaucoma, nerve damage results from an increase in intraocular pressure — the pressure inside the eye. Increased intraocular pressure occurs when the fluid that circulates in and out of the front part of the eye drains too slowly.

Glaucoma is usually painless, initially affects peripheral vision, and progresses slowly, which helps explain why half of all people with glaucoma are unaware they have it. Without adequate treatment, glaucoma eventually affects central vision and progresses to blindness. Vision loss from glaucoma is irreversible.

Glaucoma is a complex disease and progress toward preventing or reversing the condition has been slow; however, NEI's multipronged approach to glaucoma research is making great strides. Epidemiological studies funded by NEI have identified populations at higher risk of glaucoma, including African-Americans ages 40 and older; everyone age 60 and older, especially Mexican Americans; and people with a family history of the disease.

The NEI-led Ocular Hypertension Treatment Study (OHTS) and the Advanced Glaucoma Intervention Study (AGIS) helped refine strategies for reducing glaucoma-related vision loss. The OHTS established that medicated eye drops to reduce intraocular pressure are effective at delaying or preventing disease among people identified to be at high risk of glaucoma. The AGIS found that specific traits such as race/ethnicity can help predict which type of surgical treatment is more likely to achieve better visual results.

NEI continues to fund research to advance techniques such as confocal laser scanning ophthalmoscopy and optical coherence tomography, which are used to image the retina and optic nerve. Studies such as the Diagnostic Innovations in Glaucoma Study and the Advanced Imaging for Glaucoma Study are using these techniques to develop better tools to diagnose and manage glaucoma.

NEI researchers are devising new techniques to study glaucoma disease mechanisms, such as new mouse models that simulate glaucoma. Such models enable scientists to study how increased eye pressure causes optic nerve cell death.

Some people have normal intraocular pressure despite having glaucoma. A major focus of NEI glaucoma research is the development of neuroprotective treatment strategies. NEI scientists are pursuing gene therapy, stem cells, and vaccines as potential therapies to protect precious optic nerve cells. Such therapies may apply to multiple visual neuropathies and, importantly, glaucoma that does not respond to eye pressure-lowering treatments.

The NEI National Eye Health Education Program (NEHEP) provides a variety of educational resources, in English and Spanish, as part of its broad eye health outreach effort. New this year is the Keep Vision in Your Future Glaucoma Toolkit, designed for health professionals and community organizations to raise awareness about the importance of comprehensive dilated eye exams for early detection of glaucoma.

According to an NEI survey, more than 90 percent of Americans have heard of glaucoma. However, only 8 percent are aware glaucoma has no early symptoms. During Glaucoma Awareness Month, NEHEP is targeting people at higher risk of glaucoma by working with media outlets to disseminate glaucoma information.

Help spread the word this January. Early detection and treatment is the best way to prevent vision loss from glaucoma. Encourage those at risk to get a comprehensive dilated eye exam.

>> For more information about glaucoma research programs at NEI, visit www.nei.nih.gov.

>> For more information about glaucoma, comprehensive dilated eye exams, and financial assistance available for eye care, visit www.nei.nih.gov/glaucoma.

>> To find educational resources available from NEHEP, visit www.nei.nih.gov/nehep/programs/glaucoma.

The National Eye Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, leads the federal government’s research on the visual system and eye diseases. NEI supports basic and clinical science programs that result in the development of sight-saving treatments. For more information, visit www.nei.nih.gov.

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.

About Glaucoma

   Glaucoma has no warning signs.

   Left untreated, glaucoma can lead to permanent vision loss or blindness.

   People at higher risk for glaucoma should receive a comprehensive dilated eye exam every one to two years.

What is glaucoma?

Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases that can damage the eye's optic nerve and result in vision loss and blindness. However, with early treatment, you can often protect your eyes against serious vision loss.

What is the optic nerve?

The optic nerve is a bundle of more than 1 million nerve fibers. It connects the retina to the brain. The retina is the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye. A healthy optic nerve is necessary for good vision.

A cross-sectional diagram of the eye, showing the
optic nerve at the back.

 

How does open-angle glaucoma damage the optic nerve?

In the front of the eye is a space called the anterior chamber. A clear fluid flows continuously in and out of the chamber and nourishes nearby tissues. The fluid leaves the chamber at the open angle where the cornea and iris meet. When the fluid reaches the angle, it flows through a spongy meshwork, like a drain, and leaves the eye.

Fluid pathway is shown in blue.

 

Sometimes, when the fluid reaches the angle, it passes too slowly through the meshwork drain. As the fluid builds up, the pressure inside the eye rises to a level that may damage the optic nerve. When the optic nerve is damaged from increased pressure, open-angle glaucoma—and vision loss—may result. That's why controlling pressure inside the eye is important.

Does increased eye pressure mean that I have glaucoma?

Not necessarily. Increased eye pressure means you are at risk for glaucoma, but does not mean you have the disease. A person has glaucoma only if the optic nerve is damaged. If you have increased eye pressure but no damage to the optic nerve, you do not have glaucoma. However, you are at risk. Follow the advice of your eye care professional.

Can I develop glaucoma if I have increased eye pressure?

Not necessarily. Not every person with increased eye pressure will develop glaucoma. Some people can tolerate higher eye pressure better than others. Also, a certain level of eye pressure may be high for one person but normal for another.

Whether you develop glaucoma depends on the level of pressure your optic nerve can tolerate without being damaged. This level is different for each person. That's why a comprehensive dilated eye exam is very important. It can help your eye care professional determine what level of eye pressure is normal for you.

Can I develop glaucoma without an increase in my eye pressure?

Yes. Glaucoma can develop without increased eye pressure. This form of glaucoma is called low-tension or normal-tension glaucoma. It is not as common as open-angle glaucoma.

Who is at risk for open-angle glaucoma?

Anyone can develop glaucoma. Some people are at higher risk than others. They include the following:

   ● African Americans over age 40

   ● Everyone over age 60, especially Mexican Americans

   ● People with a family history of glaucoma.

A comprehensive dilated eye exam can reveal more risk factors, such as high eye pressure, thinness of the cornea, and abnormal optic nerve anatomy. In some people with certain combinations of these high-risk factors, medicines in the form of eyedrops reduce the risk of developing glaucoma by about half.

>> For more information on glaucoma and updates to this information go to the National Eye Institutes Information for Healthy Vision

The Aging Eye: Age-related Eye Diseases and Conditions (PDF*)

[English | Español]
Pass along this handout to older adults in your community to inform them about common age-related eye diseases and conditions and how to preserve sight as you age.

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