January is National Glaucoma Awareness Month, and the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium is working to help people learn more about this eye disease that can steal a person’s sight.
“Glaucoma is considered a silent thief of sight,” said Shannon Farr, an optometrist at the SEARHC Ethel Lund Medical Center in Juneau. “People start to lose their side vision, and without treatment this vision loss can affect their central vision as well. Treatment typically involves using an eye drop on a daily basis, and the more advanced cases of glaucoma do require surgery.”
Glaucoma has no warning signs, and left untreated it can lead to permanent vision loss or blindness. The National Eye Health Education Program recommends people with a higher risk for glaucoma receive a comprehensive dilated-eye vision exam every one to two years. People with higher risk for glaucoma include African Americans older than 40 years old, all adults older than 60, especially Mexican Americans and/or people with a family history of the disease. While most cases of glaucoma are found in middle-aged and older adults, it sometimes does impact children. For example, musician Ray Charles was blinded by glaucoma at age 6.
“A specific type, known as narrow-angle glaucoma, is more prevalent in Alaska Natives,” Farr said. “This type can involve occasional eye pain, therefore it is important to have an eye exam at least once every two years to monitor for ocular disease.”
Glaucoma involves the pressure that helps keep an eye round and firm. When the pressure becomes too high, it can cause damage to the internal structures of the eye. In most cases, moderately high eye pressure causes no pain or discomfort, and more than 80 percent of the cells that carry visual information from the eye to the brain can be killed before a person realizes what’s happening.
Fortunately, a simple test called “tonometry” is conducted during a routine eye exam, and this can detect glaucoma early enough so it can be treated before a person suffers permanent vision loss. Examples of tonometry include the “air puff” test, as well as the more accurate method that uses a blue light. Children and elders age 60 or older should receive an eye exam every year, while adults ages 18-60 should see an optometrist at least once every two years (they should have yearly exams if they are at high risk for glaucoma or have diabetes).
To learn more about glaucoma and how you can prevent it, contact your local SEARHC eye clinic in Juneau (463-4086) or Sitka (907-966-8415), or go to the National Eye Institute site at www.nei.nih.gov/glaucoma.