2006-02-02 / Savvy Senior

Savvy Senior


Dear Savvy Senior,

My father lost his vision from glaucoma 20 years ago and my brother was recently diagnosed with it last month. With this strong family history of glaucoma, what can I do to protect my eyesight?

Seeing at 65

Dear Seeing,

Glaucoma is the second-leading cause of blindness in the United States (after macular degeneration) but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s what you should know:

Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases that can damage the optic nerve and cause vision loss and blindness if it’s 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, but by the time you notice it, the permanent damage is already done.

•Angle-closure glaucoma: Occurs when the drainage canal gets blocked, causing a rapid increase in eye pressure. Symptoms include nausea, blurred vision and severe pain. If you have these symptoms, get to an emergency room immediately.

No symptoms: The problem with most cases of glaucoma is there are no symptoms, so most people don’t know (on their own) if they have it until their vision is impaired. That is why it’s very important to get regular exams with your eye doctor. While there’s currently no cure for glaucoma, most cases can easily be treated with medication which can prevent further vision loss. If that doesn’t work, your doctor may recommend laser or eye surgery or a combination of methods.

Risk Factors: It’s estimated that more than 3 million Americans have glaucoma but only about half of them know they have it. Are you one of them? Here are some key factors that can increase your risks:

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

• Family history: Unfortunately, glaucoma tends to run in families. Having a brother, sister or parent with glaucoma increases your risk of developing this disease by five times.

• Race: African-Americans have a much higher risk of developing glaucoma than any other ethnic group. In fact, between ages 45 and 65, African-Americans are 15 times more likely to go blind from glaucoma than Caucasians in the same age group. Hispanic-Americans also have an increased risk of developing glaucoma earlier in life, and Asians also have a higher risk of developing angle-closure glaucoma.

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

• Medications: Studies show that long-term 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.

Savvy Tips : The best way to protect your eyesight from glaucoma is with early detection. If you are 45 and older and have any risk factors, you should get a comprehensive eye examination at least once every two years. Medicare will pay 80 percent for a dilated eye examination every year for all beneficiaries at high risk for glaucoma, but they don’t cover treatment cost. If you could use some eye care help, a great resource is Eye Care America.

A nationwide program that provides free glaucoma eye exams and treatment (if necessary) to those who are uninsured. They also offer a “senior eye care program” that provides free medical eye care to all U.S. citizens, age 65 and older, who have not seen an ophthalmologist in three or more years and don’t belong to an HMO or the VA. For more information call 800-222-3937 or visit www.eyecareamerica.org.

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

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