Aging population puts focus on glaucoma

DOVER –– As the large baby boomer generation ages, more people than ever are at risk for the painless and potentially blinding eye disease, glaucoma.

Those aged 60 and over are most likely to develop the disease caused by increased eye pressure. According to the century-old sight advocacy group Prevent Blindness, nearly 3 million Americans have glaucoma and the numbers are only expected to rise –– an estimated 4.3 million Americans will be diagnosed with glaucoma in 2032 and 5.5 million by 2050.

“It’s often difficult to notice the early stages because it happens so gradually and the peripheral vision is what becomes blurry first and it typically seems blurry to us anyway,” said Dr. Karen Rudo of Delaware Eye Clinics in Milton.

But early detection is key because nerve damage caused by glaucoma is permanent and can result in blindness if the disease remains untreated.

“In most cases, people’s eye pressure is finely tuned,” Dr. Rudo said. “The pressure will vary throughout the day but it’s a consistent pattern. The problem comes when the pressure gets too high and begins to cause nerve damage.”

Different types of glaucoma have different time lines for advancement with some cases like the most common form, open-angle glaucoma, taking many years to develop while others like the uncommon closed-angle glaucoma can develop in a matter of days or even hours.

Open-angle glaucoma is often painless while closed-angle can cause severe pain and must be treated as a medical emergency.

In most cases, glaucoma can be attributed to the decreased to the narrowing or blockage of drainage ducts due to the high pressure in the eye. Open-angle accounts for 90 percent of cases in America and is due to partial blockage of the ducts and closed-angle is a result of complete blockage.

The most important red flag for glaucoma is a family history of the condition.

“There aren’t any real preventative measures to take because from what we know, genetics is the biggest influence and we can’t help who our parents are and what medical conditions they have,” Dr. Rudo said.

Other uncontrollable factors like age and race also play a role. According to Prevent Blindness, those over 60 years old have an increased risk of developing glaucoma and African Americans 40 and older are five times more likely to develop glaucoma than other demographic.

“Even though most factors that put us at risk for glaucoma are beyond our control, like any other physician, we always encourage a healthy lifestyle because that’s one of the most important aspects in preventing any other illness,” Dr. Rudo said.

And other illnesses can make one more likely to develop glaucoma –– especially diabetes which puts individuals at a 40 percent greater risk of developing glaucoma.

Diabetics should see an eye doctor once a year, even before age 40 because they are more likely to develop various eye conditions due to a possible inadequate blood supply to the eyes.

Although glaucoma typically affects people over 60, and those with existing medical conditions, rarer forms can affect people of all ages including infants and children.

That’s why it’s so important to see your eye doctor regularly. The doctor is able to diagnose glaucoma in its early stages by testing eye pressure and evaluating the optic nerve for any abnormalities.

The typical suggestion is for healthy individuals to see an eye doctor once every two years but those at higher risk should have an annual visit.

After a glaucoma diagnosis, many of Dr. Rudo’s patients ask about medical marijuana as a treatment option but it isn’t a great medicine for glaucoma despite the cultural view that it is.

“Medical marijuana is great for a lot of conditions but not all that beneficial for glaucoma patients,” Dr. Rudo said. “It does lower the pressure but the relief is very temporary and usually only lasts an hour or two and you really need something to reduce the pressure around the clock.”

That’s why the most common treatment method is eye drops –– usually only one drop per day for cases caught in the early stages. Some more advanced cases may require laser surgery to prevent further sight loss.

For more information about glaucoma visit preventblindness.org or speak with your eye care professional.

Reach staff writer Ashton Brown at abrown@newszap.com. Follow @AshtonReports on Twitter.

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