What Is Glaucoma and How Can Seniors Prevent It?

January 6, 2020

Glaucoma is one of the leading causes of blindness for seniors. Learn more about this disease, including how it is identified and treated.

Vision loss becomes more common with age. It contributes to challenges ranging from difficulty driving to an increased risk of experiencing a fall. One of the vision problems seniors are most likely to develop is glaucoma. While it is typically treatable, the condition must be detected early.

Experts say about three million Americans have glaucoma, but only about half of them realize it. It causes 9% to 12% of all cases of blindness.

What Is Glaucoma?

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, there are two primary types of glaucoma:

  • Primary open-angle glaucoma: This type of the disease occurs when fluid doesn’t drain from the eye as it should. Pressure in the eye builds and gradually causes damage to the optic nerve. The most common form of glaucoma, it is painless and has no symptoms at first. Early signs of the disease can be detected only through an eye exam.
  • Closed-angle glaucoma: When an adult’s iris is located very close to the drainage angle in their eye, the iris can block it from draining. When the drainage angle becomes completely blocked, pressure in the eye rises very quickly. This is an emergency that must be treated immediately to prevent blindness. Common symptoms include nausea and vomiting, headache, severe eye pain, blurry vision, and seeing rainbow-colored rings or halos around lights.

Early diagnosis and intervention are essential for any type of glaucoma.

Risk Factors for Glaucoma

What can older adults do to lower their risk for developing this common vision issue?

It begins with knowing the risk factors and taking steps to minimize those that are preventable. The most common risk factors for glaucoma include:

  • Age: The risk of developing glaucoma begins to increase at age 40.
  • Genetics: You are more likely to be diagnosed if a family member has the disease.
  • Heritage: People of African, Hispanic, or Asian descent are at increased risk.
  • Steroids: Long-term steroid use also puts you at higher risk for glaucoma.
  • Eye injury: Having a previous eye injury is also linked to developing glaucoma.

You are also more likely to experience glaucoma if you have diabetes, migraines, high blood pressure, or poor blood circulation.

Glaucoma Screening and Treatment

A yearly eye exam is vital to identify and intervene early in a variety of vision problems, including glaucoma. Experts recommend having a baseline exam by age 40.

During a glaucoma screening, the doctor will measure the pressure in the eye, the shape and color of the optic nerve, the angle where the iris meets the cornea, and the thickness of the cornea. They will also evaluate the complete field of vision.

If the physician detects signs of glaucoma, they will attempt to lower the pressure in the eye. That typically begins with eye drops but may also include other treatment options, such as oral medications, surgery, or lasers.

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