The National Eye Institute recognizes January as National Glaucoma Awareness Month. You may not realize that anyone, even young children, can develop glaucoma, which can lead to severe vision loss and blindness. Though it's most common among those over 40, and certain groups are at greater risk of developing it, we all should learn the facts about glaucoma—a disorder for which there is not yet a cure. In the spirit of spreading Glaucoma awareness, we'll discuss some facts, symptoms and prevention tips.
What causes it? The cornea and iris are angled to allow the drainage of fluid, which flows continuously to nourish surrounding tissues. But when that fluid cannot leave the eye, pressure builds inside. This increased pressure is most often what damages the optic nerve and leads to glaucoma, per the National Eye Institute (NEI). Blood pressure should also be maintained at proper levels to prevent optic nerve damage, NEI experts say.
What types of glaucoma exist? There are two main types of glaucoma: open-angle (or wide-angle) glaucoma and angle-closure glaucoma. According to WebMD, open-angle glaucoma is the most common, and is typically inherited, emerging later in life. Congenital glaucoma affects children, and low-tension or normal-tension glaucoma affects those who have normal levels of eye pressure but still have optic nerve damage. A number of secondary glaucomas may also develop, but these are rare, or emerge as a complication from a related condition.
How many are affected? More than 3 million Americans have glaucoma, but nearly half of them may not even know they have it, says the BrightFocus Foundation, an organization who funds the National Glaucoma Research Program.
How is glaucoma detected? What makes early detection and prevention of glaucoma most difficult is the fact that, in its earliest stages, there are little to no recognizable symptoms or even pain, per WebMD. Your vision stays normal, according to the NEI, and one or both eyes can be affected. That's why regular eye exams with a trusted provider are essential, especially if there is a history of glaucoma in your family.
What are the warning signs? When signs and symptoms appear, the first one is generally side/peripheral vision loss—which is easy to miss. As pressure inside the eye increases though, sudden eye pain, blurred vision, headache, and the appearance of halos around lights should prompt a call for urgent medical attention. Also seek care immediately if you notice redness or haziness in the eyes, vision loss, tunnel vision, or vomiting/nausea.
What can I do to prevent vision loss related to glaucoma? While heredity is hard to overcome, there are things you can do to prevent glaucoma—and many of these tips promote better health in general.
First, know your family history and your risk for developing glaucoma. Schedule regular exams and keep in touch with your eye doctor, especially if you are at risk. Glaucoma tests are quick and painless, says WebMD, and a long-term tracking of your visual health will make early detection and diagnosis much easier.
Exercising and eating a healthy, balanced diet can preserve those all-important eye pressure levels, and foods high in the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin are the most effective protectors, as they are found in higher amounts in our eyes, the Glaucoma Research Foundation says. And despite the long-standing belief that carrots are good for your eyes, kale, spinach, and other green leafy vegetables will do a much better job of healthy vision maintenance.
Other foods high in lutein and zeaxanthin include pumpkin, summer squash, green olives, corn, broccoli, and green pepper (see the full list). Foods rich in zinc and in vitamins A, C, and E are also beneficial, but as always, check with your doctor to make sure you're not getting too much of these nutrients, as an "overdose" of them can lead to other health problems.
Look further: Glaucoma isn't the only thing clouding older adults' vision: read about other common eye conditions and the tech tools that can help.