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Knowing Your Risks Can Stop the Sneak Thief of Sight

01/04/2011   10:29:20 AM

African and Hispanic ethnic groups and others with a family history of glaucoma are particularly vulnerable

SAN FRANCISCO—Glaucoma is a silent illness; most people have no early symptoms and do not notice as their peripheral vision diminishes or blind spots occur. The disease affects more than 2.2 million Americans age 40 and older, half of whom do not know they have the disease. January is Glaucoma Awareness Month, and through the EyeSmart™ Campaign, the American Academy of Ophthalmology and EyeCareAmerica, a public service program of the Foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, want to remind people that knowing your risk for the disease can save your sight.  If untreated, glaucoma ultimately results in blindness.

“Glaucoma can be a ‘sneak thief’ illness, and currently there is no treatment to restore vision once it’s lost,” said Kuldev Singh, MD, MPH, Professor of Ophthalmology and Director of the Glaucoma Service at Stanford University School of Medicine, and clinical correspondent for the Academy. “But when we catch glaucoma early and closely monitor and treat people, we can significantly slow its progression and minimize vision loss.”

Because glaucoma is a leading cause of preventable blindness, the American Glaucoma Society and the Glaucoma Research Foundation are joining the Academy and EyeCare America in urging Americans to know their risks for the disease.

Among Americans, higher risk groups include those of African or Hispanic heritage and others with a family history of the illness. Elderly individuals with African ancestry are five times more likely to develop glaucoma and 14 to 17 times more likely to become blind than similar aged individuals with European ancestry. The risk for Hispanic Americans rises markedly after age 60. Those of any ethnicity who have a family history of the illness are four to nine times more susceptible.

A national survey commissioned in 2007 by the Academy for the EyeSmart campaign found that only 24 percent of people in ethnic groups at higher risk for glaucoma were aware of their risk, and only 16 percent of those with a family history of eye disease, including glaucoma, could correctly identify the risk factors for those diseases. 

Other glaucoma risk factors include aging, nearsightedness, previous eye injuries, steroid use, and health conditions including cardiovascular disorders, diabetes, and migraine headache.

For individuals with symptoms of or at risk for eye diseases like glaucoma, the Academy recommends that they see their ophthalmologist to determine how frequently their eyes should be examined. The Academy recommends that those with no symptoms or risk factors for eye disease get a baseline screening at age 40 when the signs of disease and change in vision may start to occur.

About Glaucoma
Glaucoma damages the optic nerve, the part of the eye that carries the images we see to the brain. As glaucoma worsens, cells die in the retina—a special, light-sensitive area of the eye—reducing the optic nerve’s ability to relay visual information to the brain. In the most common form of the disease, open-angle glaucoma, peripheral vision usually narrows, then other blank spots occur in the visual field. Symptoms of the less common but more acutely dangerous form of the disease, closed-angle glaucoma, include blurred vision, severe eye pain and headache, rainbow-colored halos around lights, and nausea and vomiting. Anyone with these symptoms needs to be seen by an Eye M.D. right away.

More information on glaucoma and how to preserve vision, as well as how to access care, is available on the Academy-sponsored web site www.geteyesmart.org. Additional information is also available at the American Glaucoma Society web site, www.glaucomaweb.org, and at the Glaucoma Research Foundation web site, www.glaucoma.org.

Broadcast eds: Glaucoma B-roll footage is available from the Academy. Please contact the Academy’s media relations department for download information.

About the American Academy of Ophthalmology
The American Academy of Ophthalmology is the world's largest association of eye physicians and surgeons—Eye M.D.s—with more than 29,000 members worldwide.  Eye health care is provided by the three “O’s” – opticians, optometrists and ophthalmologists. It is the ophthalmologist, or Eye M.D., who can treat it all: eye diseases and injuries, and perform eye surgery. To find an Eye M.D. in your area, visit the Academy's Web site at www.aao.org.                                                                                    

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