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The importance of Glaucoma testing

Glaucoma is an eye disorder that causes damage to the optic nerve and, if untreated, leads to blindness. Glaucoma is the second leading cause of blindness. This condition is not curable, but to prevent vision loss, it is important for an afflicted person to undergo treatment. Glaucoma is a chronic condition and must be monitored for life.

Older adults are especially effected. It is extremely important to be tested.

Older adults are should be tested for glaucoma, because anyone can be at risk for this condition. Some are more likely to have glaucoma because of risk factors.

Risk Factors

Any adult over the age of 60 is six times more likely to develop the condition. Recent studies indicate that the risk for Hispanic populations is greater than those of predominantly European ancestry, and that the risk increases among Hispanics over age 60.

African Americans are six to eight times more likely to have glaucoma than Caucasians. Glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness among African Americans. Younger African Americans, between the ages 45-65, are also at a higher risk. They are 14 to 17 times more likely to go blind from glaucoma than Caucasians with glaucoma in the same age group.

Other factors, such as family history, increase the risk of glaucoma. Primary open-angle glaucoma, which is the most common type, is hereditary. People who have immediate family members with glaucoma are also at a much higher risk than the rest of the population.

Adults with severe asthma may also be at risk for glaucoma, because of the steroids used in their inhalers. A 1997 study reported in the Journal of American Medical Association demonstrated a 40 percent increase in the incidence of ocular hypertension and open-angle glaucoma in adults who require approximately 14 to 35 puffs of steroid inhaler. This is a very high dose, only required in cases of severe asthma.

Injury to the eye can also result in this condition immediately or years down the road. Such an injury may cause secondary open-angle glaucoma. Blunt trauma that penetrates the eye can damage the eye’s drainage system, leading to traumatic glaucoma. The most common cause is sports-related injuries such as baseball or boxing.

Other possible risk groups include people who are severely nearsighted and those with systemic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Testing

It is estimated that over four million Americans have glaucoma, but only half of those know they have it. Anyone that is 35 years or older, and falls into a high-risk group, should be tested everyone one to two years; all older adults (over age 65) should be tested once every 12 months for glaucoma. Be sure to check with your insurance to see how much of the exam is covered. Medicare typically covers 80 percent of the exam. January is Glaucoma Awareness Month, and many eye doctors offer free exams at this time.

The most common glaucoma test is called non-contact tonometry —or “puff of air” test. The patient places his chin on the machine’s chin rest and looks at a light inside the machine. The doctor then puffs a small burst of air at the open eye. Nothing touches the eyeball—it is quick and painless.

Another type of glaucoma test, the applanation tonometry, requires the eye doctor to place yellow eye drops into the patient’s eye. The drop is a numbing agent with yellow dye that glows under a blue light. The patient will need to stare straight ahead at a slit lamp while the doctor touches the eye surface. This procedure is also quick and painless.

Both of these tests calculate the patient’s intraocular pressure. If a person has high eye pressure, they may be at risk for glaucoma.

Treatments

Doctors usually prescribe special glaucoma eye drops that reduce intraocular pressure. These are used one or several times a day, depending on the medication. If the drops don't work, surgery may be the next step. In some cases, surgery might be the first option for treatment.

A person with glaucoma in the early stages may not be aware they have the condition, but his or her peripheral vision may be affected. This makes driving dangerous as the person may not see other cars, pedestrians, or bicycles that are outside of the central line of sight.

It is important that the patient and/or older adult caregiver alert other health care professionals to the glaucoma diagnosis. Some medications, such as allergy pills, anti-histamines, anti-inflammatory drugs, stomach disorder medications, and tranquilizers may need to be adjusted.

It is important for afflicted individuals to be diagnosed as soon as possible so they can receive treatment before completely losing their sight.

A version of this article appeared in the Private Health News