“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Ben Franklin famously observed, and his sage advice remains true today—especially when it comes to treating diseases such as glaucoma.
Catch the disease in its earliest stages, and in the majority of cases an ophthalmologist can manage the problem quite effectively. But if discovered late or left untreated, glaucoma can cause complete, irreversible blindness.
Glaucoma is most commonly diagnosed in older adults. As the average age of Americans trends higher in coming years, the frequency of glaucoma will likely grow. University of Minnesota Health has two of the nation’s top ophthalmologists who specialize in glaucoma on staff. We asked one of them, Ophthalmologist Jess Boysen, MD, to tell us five things we should know about glaucoma causes, risk factors, diagnosis and treatment.
Glaucoma is a major health problem and is the leading cause of blindness in older adults.
The term “glaucoma” actually includes a group of conditions that damage the eye’s optic nerve, which transmits signals from your retina to you brain. Often, the damage to the nerve occurs when there’s too much pressure in your eye due to a buildup of fluid.
In many cases, glaucoma symptoms only become obvious when it’s too late.
An estimated 2 to 3 million Americans have the condition, but roughly one half of those people may not be aware they have the disease, Boysen said. In most cases, people don’t experience pain or significant loss of vision until much later in the disease. By then, the damage done by glaucoma is permanent; you can never get your sight back.
Early detection of the disease is vital.
A simple dilated eye exam can be used to help identify those who may be at risk for glaucoma. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that most people be screened every four years beginning at age 40, and every other year starting at age 65. Those with significant risk factors—like a family history of glaucoma—should be tested even more often, Boysen said.
Glaucoma tends to run in families.
Although age is the biggest risk factor for glaucoma, Boysen said, the disease isn’t necessarily limited to older adults. In some cases, genetics seem to play a role. People whose close relatives have glaucoma are more likely than the general public to have it. Also, people of African, or Afro-Caribbean descent seem particularly susceptible to glaucoma and should consider more frequent screenings. Previous eye injury can also result in development of the disease.
Glaucoma isn’t curable, but it’s easily treatable.
Glaucoma is a life-long condition and those diagnosed with the disease are required to manage the condition for the rest of their lives. Treatment—which often includes eye drops, medications and exams—is very effective in slowing or preventing vision loss, especially when the disease is caught early. In more severe cases, various forms of surgery can help reduce pressure inside the eye.
The chronic nature of glaucoma led Boysen to specialize in treatment of the disease.
“Unlike cataract surgery, for example, where you cure the problem with one operation, I have the opportunity to partner with patients over time, which allows me to develop relationships with them and help maintain their vision. It’s very rewarding.”