Glaucoma Risk Factors: Are You at Risk?
What do rock star Bono and comedian Whoopi Goldberg have in common? Aside from being famous, both live with glaucoma. But they're far from alone.
As a cause of vision loss in Americans ages 40 and older, glaucoma affects more than three million people in the US. According to the National Eye Institute, that number could more than double by 2050. While anyone can get glaucoma, African Americans over age 40, everyone over age 60, especially Mexican Americans, and people with a family history of the disease are at higher risk. That's why knowing your family history of eye disease is the first step in prevention.
Other risk factors include:
- severe nearsightedness,
- hypertension, or
- long-term steroid or cortisone use.
Glaucoma may also result from a serious eye injury or trauma, or an enlarged optic nerve.
What Is Glaucoma?
While the risk is great, estimates are that half the people with the disease don't even know they have it because glaucoma doesn't send out any warning signals. It's known as the silent thief of sight, first affecting side vision and then, over time, zeroing in until vision reduces to a narrow tunnel. Finally, glaucoma can take vision away altogether.
Glaucoma may be one of ophthalmology's greatest puzzles. It's actually a group of diseases that damage the eye's optic nerve. The optic nerve acts as a data cable with over a million "wires" and is responsible for carrying images from the eye to the brain. When the nerve cells, or wires in the cable are damaged, the flow of information is disrupted and the damage is irreversible.
The most common form of glaucoma, called primary open-angle glaucoma, starts with a buildup of fluid that increases the pressure in one or both eyes. It's caused by the slow clogging of the eye's drainage canals—something like a sink backing up. The pressure caused by the backup damages the optic nerve.
Can Glaucoma Be Treated?
"The good news is, the earlier you get diagnosed, the better," advises Moran Eye Center glaucoma specialist Norm A. Zabriskie, MD. "This is a disease that never gives up and has no cure, but we do have a range of treatments available—from prescription eye drops or minimally invasive surgery, or both."
Bono received his diagnosis years ago and is reportedly doing just fine—in part because ophthalmologists caught it early. (Those cool tinted glass he wears? They help with light sensitivity, a common symptom of glaucoma.)
Whoopi has said she'd used marijuana to help with her glaucoma-related headaches, but physicians don't recommend it as a treatment for the disease itself. Learn the facts about marijuana and glaucoma.
Get a Baseline Eye Exam by Age 40
The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that all adults (regardless of whether or not they have any issues with their vision) get a baseline eye examination at least by age 40, the time when early signs of disease or changes in vision might be detectable.
First published Jan 2018
Revised Jan 2020