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Tracking Your Family's Eye Health May be the Best Gift of All

As your family gathers this holiday season, consider sharing the gift of information about everyone's health history.

In particular, it's important to talk about any history of eye disease. It's something a lot of people don't discuss because they may not realize that certain eye conditions tend to run in families. Some of the most common are glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration.

While you can't control your genetic makeup, you can protect yourself from the major eye diseases you may be prone to because of your family's health history. For instance, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, having a family member with glaucoma makes you four to nine times more likely to develop the disease.

Benefits of early intervention

Often something can be done to prevent or slow eye diseases. This is particularly true for glaucoma, which has no warning signs and does its damage silently. African-Americans, for unknown reasons, are particularly susceptible to glaucoma. This group should group get eye checkups through dilated pupils at least every two years, starting at age 40. The damage from glaucoma is mostly avoidable if your eye doctor catches it early enough.

Many of the less-common eye diseases, such as retinitis pigmentosa (RP) and juvenile macular degeneration, are inherited. If any of these conditions run in your family, you should get your eyes and those of your children tested early.

If you learn that an eye disease runs in your family, or in a close relative, make sure your eye-care professional checks for early signs of the disease at your next visit.

Know your risks

"If you do have a family history of a disease, it's just an indicator that you might have inherited a genetic variant that might increase your risk. It's not a sure sign that you will get the disease," says Emily Spoth, LCGC, a genetic counselor at the John A. Moran Eye Center. "Not all relatives inherit genetic variants, and not all people who do are sure to have the disease. Still, knowing you might be at increased risk can help you make better health decisions that may allow you to avoid the disease or get it diagnosed early enough to avoid some bad outcomes."

You may want to see a genetic counselor

If you are concerned about an inherited condition, especially if you are planning to have a child, you may want to ask your ophthalmologist to refer you for a consultation with a certified genetic counselor. He or she can interpret and communicate complex medical information and guide you through decision-making processes.

Spoth offers genetic counseling to patients, working in consultation with specialists at Moran's main university location. She can facilitate testing for inherited eye diseases that cause various forms of retinal degeneration, such as RP, and help patients understand their risk. For more information on genetic counseling services at the Moran Eye Center, email