January is National Glaucoma Awareness Month and, as I said last January, glaucoma is the secret sight-stealing disease. It’s a secret because it doesn’t have symptoms in its early stages that are easily detected by the affected person. It makes being aware a particularly important part of our defense to this sight-stealing disease. On that vain, let’s review some facts about the disease.
- Glaucoma is a group of diseases that damage the eye’s optic nerve and can result in vision loss and even blindness.
- About three million Americans have glaucoma. It is the second leading cause of blindness worldwide.
- The most comm form is open-angle glaucoma that is caused by the lack of drainage in the eye, causing the pressure to build up which in turn damages the optic nerve. There are often no early symptoms, which is why 50 percent of people with glaucoma don’t know they have the disease.
- There is no cure (yet) for glaucoma, but if it’s caught early, you can preserve your vision and prevent vision loss. Taking action to preserve your vision health is key.
So, the key to limiting the impact of glaucoma is early detection which means a regular visit to your optometrist. This means that when you go to get your prescription updated, make sure you also get tested for glaucoma. One of the common tests is the puff test, which is used to test the pressure of your eye. This test has you set your chin in a chin rest and wait for that uncomfortable puff of air to hit your eyeball. It wasn’t something I looked forward to. Good news, many optometrists are using a more comfortable test to determine eye pressure, and if the puff test is not for you, call around and find a doctor who is using the more comfortable test.
While it is important for everyone to get tested, there are some specific groups that are more prone to getting glaucoma, if they:
- Are over 60 years old (like you and me)
- Are of African, Asian, or Hispanic descent
- Have relatives with glaucoma
- Are very nearsighted (myopic) or far-sighted (hyperopic)
- Use steroid medications
- Have high eye pressure
- Have a thin central cornea
- Have had an eye injury
If you fall into any of these groups, it’s important that you have a regular check-up, and when you do, tell the doctor if you fit into one of these higher risk groups.
I do want to say something about the research that is going on to understand glaucoma and to eventually find a cure. While the common cause of glaucoma is increased pressure there are other ways that the optic nerve can be damaged. Research is beginning to understand more about how these optic nerves get damaged and possible ways to prevent the damage or even repair it. The Glaucoma Research Foundation has started an initiative, called Catalyst for a Cure, which brings scientists together from different areas, hoping the synergy will offer insights into possible cures. Until very recently, the only hope was to slow down or possibly stop the onset of blindness, but there was no hope for regaining the sight that was lost. Recent research has opened the possibility of restoring sight that was lost due to optic nerve damage, an approach that seemed impossible just a few years ago. Scientists are also finding that there may be a link between Alzheimer’s and glaucoma. Understanding what these links are could help better understand both diseases while also enabling earlier detection.
It amazes me that the regeneration of nerves is not science fiction anymore. While there certainly isn’t a timeline for this sight restoring miracle, this has got to give some hope to those whose sight has been affected by glaucoma. It further magnifies the importance of innovation. Organizations like the Glaucoma Research Foundation are financed through grants and donations, and I’m sure their leaders are constantly searching for more funds to push their research forward. I’ve written often about how our government’s schemes for lowering healthcare costs has often had a negative effect on innovation. While I think there are absolutely ways to bring down the cost of our healthcare, any cost saving approach should ensure that there isn’t a negative effect on research. As a country we should be spending our treasure on ways to save lives, save sight, save our hearing, save our mobility, and extend our lives. What better thing do we have to do with our money? If we want to have efficient and cost appropriate healthcare, why don’t we change to a form of benefit pricing that reflects the positive impact a procedure or medicine has on the individual and on the healthcare system? Think of the benefit and the worth of restoring someone’s sight that had been lost due to glaucoma. The money spent to treat and care for the three million people who have glaucoma could be saved if the Catalyst for a Cure was successful. We’re talking trillions of dollars saved if we cured cancer or Alzheimer’s. It seems to me that money spent on research is a long-range approach that will pay dividends far beyond these short-term money saving schemes.
I appreciate your indulgence on my tirade. Hopefully you get a sense of my frustration when I see a situation where research has the possibility to find a way we can reverse the damage caused by glaucoma. The important thing to remember is that early detection is key. It’s important to go to your optometrist and get tested for glaucoma.