By Dr. Deepan Selvadurai
January is Glaucoma Awareness Month, but what do we really know about glaucoma? It is the second leading cause of blindness in the world in adults over the age of 60, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. In black populations, for instance, glaucoma occurs about ten years earlier on average, more frequently, and with higher rates of blindness. There are a few reasons why glaucoma — “the silent thief of sight” — can be more concerning than other diseases that affect vision. We’ll talk about some here, and why scheduling regular glaucoma screenings can be a step to saving your long-term vision.
The first step to understanding glaucoma is to understand a little about the eye’s anatomy. Light enters the eye where it’s focused — or “refracted” — onto the retina, which contains millions of light-sensitive cells. These cells organize the information the eye receives and sends it to the brain. The “cable” that carries these signals is called the optic nerve.
Glaucoma is an eye disease that causes the pressure inside of the eye to rise, damaging the optic nerve, resulting in the loss of peripheral (side) vision. It’s a chronic, progressing illness that will continue to worsen over time, and unlike some other eye diseases, the vision loss that occurs is permanent. This makes early detection critical. There are a variety of different ways to stop or slow glaucoma’s progression — but only if it’s caught in time.
Why Is Glaucoma So Concerning?
There are three main sources of blindness in older Americans: macular degeneration (AMD), cataracts, and glaucoma.
There’s a key difference between glaucoma and the other two, however, and it has to do with the way it affects your vision. AMD and cataracts affect the central vision, while glaucoma causes vision loss from the outside in.
This is a part of why glaucoma is called the “silent thief of sight”. It slowly steals away your peripheral vision and it does it with very few symptoms. Because this vision is key to mobility and overall function, most people don’t notice the loss of peripheral vision until it starts to have huge impacts on their overall independence — and at that point, vision loss may be too severe to overcome.
Early Detection is Key
A number of risk factors contribute to glaucoma, including age, ethnicity, and genetics, and lifestyle habits. While we’re not sure why exactly black Americans are affected much more heavily than other ethnic groups, glaucoma is also hereditary. If glaucoma runs in your family, you’re significantly more at risk for it. Other conditions that can put you at a greater risk for developing glaucoma include diabetes, hypertension, and even extreme nearsightedness.
All this is to say that having regular glaucoma screenings is so important to the long-term preservation of your vision. You may not notice your peripheral vision as much as your central vision, but there’s a reason why it’s said that glaucoma is “the worst way to go blind” — your side vision is critical to mobility, driving, and staying independent later in life. Vision loss from glaucoma is permanent, but preventable. It’s never too early to be screened for eye diseases, especially if you have a family member with the disease or are in a high risk group, as African Americans tend to be.
Dr. Selvadurai ,one of Buffalo’s premiere glaucoma specialists, is a fellowship trained and board certified cataract and glaucoma specialist, completing training at Northwestern University, The Mayo Clinic, and the University of Toronto on advanced methods for treating and managing complex cases of glaucoma.