What’s gradual, painless and dubbed the Silent Thief of Sight?

The answer is Glaucoma, an eye disease that slowly causes you to lose your vision.  If you’ve been proactive in monitoring your health, you should hopefully have a pretty good idea of certain health conditions that run in the family.  For example, mom has high cholesterol, dad has diabetes and you remember your grandmother uses eye drops for something.  Knowing your family eye history is very important because most eye diseases tend to be genetic.  Glaucoma, for example, tends to run on the mother’s side of the family.  If your mom has glaucoma, make sure you tell your optometrist.

glaucomadimming_55Laney69

Courtesy of 55Laney69 on Flickr
(Left – Normal Vision, Right – with glaucoma)

What exactly is Glaucoma?  It’s a disease where the optic nerve slowly deteriorates as a result of poor blood flow and is often accompanied by high intraocular pressures.  The optic nerve is a bundle of smaller nerve fibers, similar to a conduit, which transmits electrical signals from the retina to the brain.  In glaucoma, the smaller nerve fibers slowly deteriorate, resulting in a gradual loss of vision.  The first areas of vision loss will occur in the periphery, off to the sides, which is very difficult to detect since we are not often aware of our peripheral visual field.  If a patient experiences symptoms, the first symptom may be poor night vision.  As the disease progresses, vision loss creeps in toward the center of your visual field.  By the time you notice that you are losing your peripheral vision and developing “tunnel vision,” you will be in the late stages of glaucoma.

The good news is that glaucoma is the leading cause of PREVENTABLE blindness.  Routine eye examinations will allow an optometrist to detect glaucoma sooner.  There are a variety of tests necessary to detect glaucoma such as a visual field screening, measurement of the intraocular pressures, and careful evaluation of the optic nerve to detect changes.  Many offices now incorporate retinal photos into their routine examinations that are invaluable in detecting many retinal diseases including glaucoma.  Glaucoma is a diagnosis over time, it is rarely diagnosed on a first visit.  When change is detected in the structure of the optic nerve or in the thickness of its surrounding nerve layer over time, then glaucoma is diagnosed.  This is where comparing current retinal photos to older ones are helpful in detecting small changes over time.  Another important tool in the last few years is the Optical Coherence Tomography, which measures microscopic layers of the retina to detect microscopic changes.

So what happens if you do have glaucoma?  Treatment is often pretty simple.  There are a few different forms of glaucoma.  The majority of them are treated with eye drops with dosages as little as once a day.  The medicated eye drops lower the intraocular pressures in the eyes, which help to slow down the progression of glaucoma.  Some patients require laser treatments to lower their pressures.  Most cases of glaucoma are manageable and treatable if detected early.

I usually tell my patients that the ages of 20s and 30s is for establishing a baseline.  This is where routine examinations and photos are useful.  The ages of 40s and onward is for detecting change and eye diseases, and treating early.  Of course, as with any other diseases of the body, staying healthy is key.  Those with diabetes have a much higher likelihood of developing glaucoma so keep your blood sugar under control.  Those of Asian, Latino and African descent have a higher tendency for developing glaucoma.  Having a high amount of nearsightedness also puts you at greater risk.

The take home message is that glaucoma is treatable if detected early.  So know your family health history, stay healthy and see your optometrist routinely for comprehensive eye examinations.

~Cindy P. Wang, O.D., F.A.A.O.
California Optometric Association
http://www.coavision.org   
 

Vision and the aging eye

Courtesy of ORBIS US on Flickr

Courtesy of ORBIS US on Flickr

Many patients reach a certain life stage and realize they need to start thinking more about their vision and preventing eye problems.  This usually happens in their early to mid-forties when people notice reading is a lot easier when there’s plenty of light and the print is held further away.  Those who have seen an eye care provider for this problem should have already discovered that this is a normal aging process.  But how does one know when vision changes are normal or should be concerning?

Eye conditions that impact vision:

  • Presbyopia is the medical term for when the focusing muscles in the eye are not as flexible, causing poor focusing ability for objects nearby.  This typically occurs in the late thirties/early forties and is easily corrected with reading glasses or bifocal or progressive lenses.
  • Cataracts begin to develop in our forties and progress over time.  There is a natural clear crystalline lens in our eye which focuses light onto our retina.  With ultraviolet ray exposure, this lens can become more opaque and yellow over time, causing a dimming of vision and glare and haloes around lights.  The best way to prevent cataracts from progressing quickly is to protect the eyes with UV-blocking sunglasses anytime you are outdoors.  The good news about cataracts is that they can be easily removed and replaced with an artificial lens implant.  With the latest technology of intraocular lens implants such as muiltifocal lenses, patients are now able to see clearly at all distances without the use of glasses or reading glasses.
  • Glaucoma is a symptomless eye disease of the optic nerve head where the nerve slowly deteriorates over time.  Most patients who develop glaucoma will not have any symptoms until the late stages of the disease, when peripheral vision deteriorates and patients are left with tunnel vision.  There is no cure or preventative measure for glaucoma, however, it is easily treated with eyedrops.  The only way to determine if you have glaucoma is to have annual comprehensive eye examinations.

    Courtesy of Nargopolis on Flickr

    Courtesy of Nargopolis on Flickr

  • Macular Degeneration is another common eye disease that can cause debilitating vision loss.  This occurs when the macular region of the retina loses its integrity causing poor central vision with distortion or gray spots.  It is often detected upon routine examination, especially when photos of the retina are compared over time.  Fortunately, there have been extensive studies on macular degeneration and the field has changed dramatically over the last several years.  An important test in recent years is genetic testing to determine one’s risk factor for vision loss as a result of macular degeneration, as well as antioxidants that may be useful in reducing this risk.  Clear risk factors include a history of smoking, exposure to ultraviolet radiation, increased cholesterol levels and Caucasian women with lighter eyes and fairer complexions.
  • Retinal Detachment tends to occur more often in those who are older than 65.  The retina is a thin and fragile tissue that lines the back wall of the eye and sends visual information to the brain.  This tissue becomes more fragile over time and can easily develop a hole or tear leading to a retinal detachment.  If you experience flashes of light, new floaters, or a change in your vision, you need to be seen right away by your eyecare provider.

There are a myriad of eye conditions that can develop as one ages.  The most important and useful method of preventing vision loss is to stay healthy.  See your primary care physician regularly to evaluate and treat high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and other health conditions.  If you have uncontrolled health conditions, you can easily lose your vision to diabetic retinopathy, hypertensive retinopathy, or a stroke in the eye.

So, as I tell all my patients, see your physician regularly, eat green leafy vegetables, take your medications, and monitor your own blood pressure or blood sugar.  And of course, wear sunglasses outdoors and see your optometrist annually.

~Cindy P. Wang, OD, FAAO
California Optometric Association
http://www.coavision.org