Each year, January is dedicated as Glaucoma Awareness Month and the medical community aims to educate the general population about this serious eye disease affecting millions of people every year. Currently, more than 3 million Americans live with the disease, according to the Glaucoma Research Foundation. The number of people affected by it is projected to increase by nearly 60 percent to more than 4.2 million by the next decade.
There is no guaranteed way to prevent the disease. However, it can be crucial to know the basic facts about glaucoma, including what it is, who it affects and the best ways to protect against the vision loss it causes.
Listed below are seven informative facts about glaucoma to help people be better informed and to protect their sight.
1. Glaucoma is one of the leading causes of blindness in the United States.
Glaucoma warrants special attention from Americans, especially people 50 years of age and older. It is one of the leading causes of irreversible blindness in the United States, alongside macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy.
Glaucoma is most treatable in its early stages. However, it has no physical symptoms until a person’s peripheral vision has already begun to deteriorate.
2. Approximately 90 percent of affected Americans have open-angle glaucoma.
The National Eye Institute estimates approximately 90 percent of all Americans with glaucoma have a form of the disease known as open-angle glaucoma. In these cases, the drainage canal within the eye becomes clogged and ineffective. This prevents liquid produced in the eye from exiting and raises the eye’s intraocular pressure (IOP).
The raised levels of IOP cause damage to the optic nerve, which is the part of the eye responsible for transmitting visual signals to the brain. This, in turn, degrades sight and eventually leads to blindness. The term “open-angle” used to describe this form of the disease refers to IOP being raised despite the angle between the cornea and the iris being wide, as is standard of the eye’s anatomy.
The other primary form of glaucoma, though less common, is angle-closure glaucoma. In this form, IOP is raised acutely and often abruptly by a closure of the angle between the cornea and the iris. When this occurs, the eye’s drainage system is entirely blocked, and optic nerve damage can occur rapidly. Angle-closure glaucoma is considered a medical emergency and can quickly cause permanent blindness if not treated immediately.
3. Individuals of African and Hispanic descent are more likely to develop glaucoma.
Certain genetic factors make people more susceptible to the development of glaucoma than others, including their ethnic heritage. According to BrightFocus Foundation, open-angle glaucoma occurs in African-American individuals three to four times more often than it occurs in people of non-Hispanic white origin.
Studies have also shown people of Hispanic descent experience glaucoma at a rate similar to African Americans. It is also important to note Americans of Asian descent are shown to be at a higher risk of developing the less common angle-closure glaucoma.
4. Vision loss caused by glaucoma is irreversible.
There is currently no cure for blindness caused by glaucoma. The optic nerve damage caused by the disease cannot be reversed. As a result, vision cannot be restored once it is lost. In many cases, however, the effects of glaucoma can be slowed. This means levels of vision can be maintained over the long term if the disease is caught in its early stages.
Depending on a patient’s condition, an ophthalmologist may prescribe medicated eye drops or oral medications to reduce IOP and prevent further damage to the optic nerve. Some patients may be good candidates for various types of laser or traditional surgery. These may help clear blocked canals and allow liquid to pass through the eye.
The level of vision a person with glaucoma has will primarily depend on how early in the development of the disease a diagnosis is made.
5. Glaucoma’s economic cost to the US government is $1.5 billion every year.
Approximately 10 million visits to medical professionals are made for a glaucoma diagnosis and treatment every year. In total, the US government estimates the disease has an economic cost of $1.5 billion annually due to factors such as expenditures for health care, lost revenue from income taxes and social security benefit costs.
6. Glaucoma can cause problems beyond vision loss.
More important than the economic cost to the United States are the effects the disease can have on a person experiencing vision loss because of glaucoma. For example, patients must learn new ways to complete daily tasks which may have become complicated without the benefit of clear sight.
In addition, glaucoma can take a toll on mental health. Glaucoma is associated with circadian misalignment, which can lead to poor sleep patterns in patients. This disturbed sleep is associated with cases of depression and anxiety. This can further debilitate a person attempting to cope with new circumstances as a person with visual challenges.
7. Regular eye exams may prevent total vision loss in glaucoma patients.
When identified early, most glaucoma cases can be controlled, enabling the person affected to maintain sight over the long term. To ensure the disease is diagnosed sooner rather than later, Americans must accept eye health as a medical matter worthy of attention. Further, they must commit to scheduling regular, comprehensive eye exams with licensed ophthalmologists.
Many people choose not to include eye care when scheduling their medical checkups because they don’t have any obvious symptoms. It’s important to remember some of the most damaging illnesses affecting the eyes do not exhibit symptoms until it is too late, so regular access to vision care is a priority.