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Editorial: Know the risk factors for glaucoma

As you read this right now, you could have a disease that could leave you blind, and you don’t even know it. World Glaucoma Week ends on Saturday, March 17, an attempt to raise awareness about an eye disease that affects more than 3 million people in the United States, about half of whom may have no idea they have the disease, yet is the leading cause of irreversible blindness, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Open-angle glaucoma is largely asymptomatic. There is no pain associated with the disease and, at least initially, no loss of vision. Without treatment, it can slowly cause a person to lose peripheral vision over time, but because the change is gradual and does not initially affect central vision, it may go unrecognized. If left untreated, straight-head vision may decrease as well until no vision remains.

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Glaucoma occurs when pressure inside the eye gets too high and begins to damage the optic nerve, which carries visual information from the retina at the back of the eye to the brain. Some individuals can tolerate higher pressures without damage, while others may begin to lose vision at lower pressures.

It’s World Glaucoma Week, an awareness raising campaign for this disease of the eye that affects almost three million Americans according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and is a leading cause of blindness.

Unfortunately, damage to the optic nerve cannot be reversed, meaning any loss of vision related to glaucoma is likely permanent. Which is why awareness about the disease is so important. If it is caught early enough, it can be treated with eye drops or, in some cases, surgery to relieve pressure in the eye and protect the nerve, and a person will never experience any vision loss.

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But you have to know you have it first.

An ophthalmologist and some optometrists can perform a quality eye exam that includes a test for glaucoma — typically dilation of the eye with drops to numb it, then using a tonometer to check the inner pressure of the eye with a puff of air. If you typically have your vision tested by an eyeglasses store, the optician may not have the equipment necessary to test for glaucoma.

Nearsightedness and farsightedness — basically, if you need to wear glasses or contacts — increases your likelihood of having glaucoma. Being diabetic or having suffered a previous injury to your eye, no matter how minor or how long ago, can also make you more susceptible. Age also plays a role, as can race — African-Americans are more likely to have glaucoma — but family history of the disease is the greatest risk factor.

A person with no risk factors and no family history should still be screened every two to four years until age 40, then one to two years until age 60, and every year thereafter. Those with one or more risk factors should probably start getting annual exams much sooner.

With advances in screening and treatment, there may not be a cure for glaucoma, but there are plenty of opportunities to keep from losing your vision permanently, so long as you are aware of the risk factors and get tested regularly.

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