With Glaucoma Awareness Month in January, it’s a good time to think about scheduling a comprehensive dilated eye exam, especially if you’re at risk for glaucoma.
“It’s one of those things in life, like changing oil in your car, you just need to do it,” said John Schmelzer, a retired engineer in Durham, North Carolina. Schmelzer was diagnosed with glaucoma in the summer of 2013 during a routine eye exam.
Glaucoma is a major cause of vision loss in the U.S. While it currently affects about 3 million Americans, estimates show 6.3 million could have glaucoma by 2050.
The National Eye Institute (NEI) leads research toward better prevention, detection, and treatment of this potentially devastating disease. In its early stages, glaucoma typically has no symptoms. Late in the disease, once vision has been lost, it can’t be restored.
“Early detection by having a comprehensive dilated eye exam is key to protecting vision,” said Paul A. Sieving, M.D., Ph.D., director of the NEI. Anyone can get glaucoma, but African Americans over age 40, everyone over age 60, especially Mexican Americans, and people with a family history of glaucoma are at higher risk. People at higher risk should have a comprehensive dilated eye exam every one to two years.
Glaucoma is a group of diseases that damages the optic nerve, the bundle of nerve cells that relays visual information from the eye to the brain. In the most common form of glaucoma, called primary open angle glaucoma, nerve damage results from increased pressure inside the eye. Increased eye pressure occurs when the fluid that circulates in the eye drains too slowly.
Each eye represents a total of 80 million people, the estimated number of Americans who will be 65 and older in 2050, the population most affected by common eye diseases.
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“If glaucoma is detected in its early stages, pressure often can be controlled through medication or surgery, and the progression of the disease can be delayed,” explained Dr. Sieving.
Glaucoma is usually painless, initially affects peripheral vision, and progresses slowly, which helps explain why half of all people with glaucoma don’t know they have it. Schmelzer said he had no noticeable symptoms of glaucoma. But during his eye exam, “the pressure in my eyes was remarkable how far out of line it was,” he said. So much so, his eye care professional at the Duke Eye Center in Durham checked it a couple of times and then quickly prescribed treatment, which for Schmelzer is pressure-lowering eye drops.
Without adequate treatment, glaucoma eventually affects central vision and progresses to complete blindness.
Schmelzer added that maintaining his eye health is especially important to him now that he’s retired. “There are so many things I want to do, and we are doing, my wife and I,” he said. “I’m reading, traveling, and experiencing life.”
For more information about glaucoma, comprehensive dilated eye exams, and financial assistance available for eye care, visit www.nei.nih.gov/glaucoma.
The NEI National Eye Health Education Program (NEHEP) provides a variety of educational resources, in English and Spanish, as part of its broad eye health outreach effort. To find educational resources available from NEHEP, visit www.nei.nih.gov/nehep/GAM.
NEI leads the federal government’s research on the visual system and eye diseases. NEI supports basic and clinical science programs to develop sight-saving treatments and address special needs of people with vision loss. For more information, visit http://www.nei.nih.gov.