January is Glaucoma Awareness Month and, according to medical experts, African Americans are especially at risk.
“More than half of all people with glaucoma don’t know they have it. And, quite often, by the time people are diagnosed with glaucoma, they have already begun to notice changes in their side, or peripheral, vision. This is especially true for African Americans—those over age 40 and those with a family history of glaucoma are at higher risk for the disease. More than 520,000 African Americans have glaucoma, and this number is expected to increase by more than 300,000 over the next 15 years. The disease is a leading cause of blindness among African Americans,” the National Eye Institute (NEI) recently reported.
Glaucoma is a group of diseases that damages the eye’s optic nerve. It can lead to vision loss or blindness if left untreated.
NEI spokesperson James Tsai, president of the NY Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai and chair of the Glaucoma Subcommittee of the National Eye Health Education Planning Program Committee of the National Institutes of Health, says an early diagnosis can help preserve the patient’s vision.
“Half of Americans who have glaucoma don’t realize they have it because there are, often, no signs or symptoms until a substantial amount of vision is lost. So, the focus is on early diagnosis which leads to early treatment which leads to preservation of vision. The problem is there’s no cure for the disease. You can prevent the vision loss from getting worse but you can’t bring back the vision that is lost. It frustrates both patients and doctors. With glaucoma, compared to cataract issues for example, we just have not discovered a way to bring back the lost vision,” Tsai told TNJ.com.
He adds, “I’ve done research to try to figure out ways to regenerate the optic nerve, so that the vision can be brought back. But the optic nerve is part of the brain which is why it’s so challenging.”
The disease affects nearly 2.8 million Americans and is a silent cause of irreversible blindness. It’s critical to get checked if you have a family history of glaucoma. Occasionally you may have ocular discomfort or problems with your vision, but for the most part, the signs are nil.
Tsai says an annual comprehensive dilation exam is key in determining whether a patient has glaucoma.
“What people don’t realize is that 1/3 of Americans who have glaucoma have a normal eye pressure. Even with a normal eye pressure, compared to an elevated eye pressure, some patients can still develop it. Ask your doctor what your optic nerve looks like; ask if it looks suspicious for glaucoma. Even if a normal eye pressure is measured, ask your doctor to order a visual field test to make sure that no visual field defects are present. That’s the key. We are moving from a disease that was totally based on elevated eye pressure versus normal eye pressure,” notes Tsai.