Glaucoma is an eye condition that can cause damage to the optic nerve, resulting in vision loss and even blindness. Glaucoma is the second leading cause of blindness in the U.S. and the leading cause of blindness in individuals 60 years of age and older.
Summit Health Ophthalmologist, Dr. Ava Huchun, points out that changes in vision are a common part of aging, but if not properly monitored, vision changes can affect overall eye health. And once lost, vision cannot be restored. “Since glaucoma develops slowly over time, it’s difficult to detect,” says Dr. Huchun. “Therefore, it’s important to be proactive and not just wait for symptoms to appear.”
It’s critical to stay up to date on eye exams, which offer prevention and vision protection. “The sooner we can detect a problem and begin treatment, the less chance you’ll have for vision problems or blindness later in life,” she says.
If you are an adult in your 20s or 30s, have good vision, no family history of eye disease, and no symptoms of vision problems, Dr. Huchun recommends getting your eyes checked every 5-10 years. Once you hit your 40s and early 50s, that frequency increases to every 2-4 years. From your mid-fifties to mid-sixties, you should see the eye doctor every 1-3 years, and after age 65, you should visit the eye doctor every 1-2 years. “If you have a family history of eye disease,” says Dr. Huchun, “you should see the eye doctor as recommended by your provider.”
Below are some important things to know about glaucoma.
Who is at risk for glaucoma?
Although it’s more common in older age, anyone can develop glaucoma. Even babies and young children can present with a rare form of early-onset glaucoma. Others at high risk for the disease include African Americans over the age of 40, individuals ages 60 and older (especially Mexican Americans), and people with a family history of the disease.
How does glaucoma affect the eyes?
Glaucoma damages the eye’s optic nerve, a nerve at the back of the eye that is responsible for transmitting visual information to the brain. Those affected by glaucoma experience disruption to the flow of visual information, which leads to vision loss and even blindness.
Are there different forms of glaucoma?
There are several types of glaucoma. The two most common forms are open-angle glaucoma and narrow-angle glaucoma.
Open-angle glaucoma is the most common type of glaucoma. It is often slow to come on and painless but is a lifelong condition. It usually presents in individuals over the age of 50.
Narrow-angle glaucoma occurs when fluid builds up behind the iris, creating a dangerous level of pressure. It can cause severe symptoms, including blurred vision, red eyes, headache, eye pain, and nausea. This type of glaucoma must be treated immediately.
How is glaucoma diagnosed?
“Glaucoma often has no symptoms,” says Dr. Huchun. “So, it’s worth mentioning that a person can have 20/20 vision and still have glaucoma.” Visual loss often starts peripherally and gradually, which makes it difficult for patients to detect symptoms. Special testing such as visual fields, nerve fiber analysis, eye pressure measurements, and examination of the drainage system and optic nerve of the eye through a complete eye exam is the only way to detect early development of the disease. During this comprehensive exam, the pupils are dilated (or widened) with special drops. Then, a powerful magnifying system is used to examine the eye.
Can glaucoma be treated?
Lowering eye pressure is the usual treatment method for glaucoma. This can be done with medicines, laser treatments, or surgical shunt placements. Each method either helps the eye to produce less fluid or helps fluid drain from the eye. However, if you have a secondary form of glaucoma—a type in which there is an identifiable cause—the issue causing glaucoma must be addressed, and this may entail other methods not related to decreasing eye pressure.
Can eye health affect overall health?
Vision problems make it difficult to accomplish routine activities such as reading and writing, cooking, or driving. But those who have vision problems are also more likely to suffer from other serious health conditions, including diabetes, pulmonary disease, depression, and more.
This year take steps to ensure your eye health and safety. And if you notice any changes in your vision, talk to your doctor right away.
Ava Huchun, MD is a member of Summit Health's Ophthalmology team. Dr. Huchun is a cornea fellowship trained ophthalmologist who provides comprehensive care to patients in need of routine eye exams as well as to those presenting with cataracts, early glaucoma, refractive disorders, and ocular eyelid conditions. She also performs laser refractive surgery, surgical refractive surgery, cataract surgery, implantable contact lens placement, corneal transplants, and blepharoplasty/eyelid procedures.