By Neyal J. Ammary-Risch, MPH, MCHES
You lock away your valuables to keep them safe. But there’s one valuable you may have forgotten: Your sight. If you are African American age 40 or older, have diabetes, or have a family history of glaucoma, you are at higher risk.
Glaucoma is a group of diseases that can damage the optic nerve of the eye and result in vision loss and blindness. Primary open-angle glaucoma is the most common form. In this condition, fluid builds up in the front chamber of the eye, and the optic nerve is damaged by the resulting increase in eye pressure.
“Glaucoma affects more than 2 million people nationwide and is a leading cause of vision loss and blindness in African Americans. In fact, African Americans are at risk of developing it at an earlier age. Glaucoma has no early warning signs or symptoms, and most people don’t know this,” said Dr. James Tsai, chair of the Glaucoma Subcommittee for the National Eye Institute (NEI) National Eye Health Education Program (NEHEP). “It’s very important that people don’t wait until they notice a problem with their vision to have an eye exam.”
As glaucoma progresses, a person may eventually notice his or her side vision decreasing. If the disease is left untreated, the field of vision narrows and vision loss may result. “Most studies show that at least half of all persons with glaucoma don’t know they have this potentially blinding disease,” said Dr. Paul Sieving, director of NEI, National Institutes of Health.
“Glaucoma can be detected through a comprehensive dilated eye exam. NEI encourages all people at higher risk of glaucoma – African Americans age 40 and older; everyone age 60, especially Mexican Americans; and those with a family history of glaucoma – to get a dilated eye exam every one to two years, because early detection and treatment may save your sight.”
A comprehensive dilated eye exam is a painless procedure. Drops are placed in your eyes to dilate, or widen, the pupils. This allows your eye care professional to see inside your eye and examine the optic nerve for signs of damage and other vision problems.
If you have Medicare, are African American age 50 or older, and have diabetes or a family history of glaucoma, you may be eligible for a low-cost, comprehensive dilated eye exam through the Medicare benefit for eye health. Call 1-800-MEDICARE or visit www.medicare.gov for more information. To find out about other possible financial assistance for eye care, visit www.nei.nih.gov/health/financialaid.asp.
Keep vision in your future. For more information about glaucoma, visit www.nei.nih.gov/glaucoma or call NEI at 301-496-5248.
Neyal J. Ammary-Risch, MPH, MCHES is the director of the National Eye Health Education Program (NEHEP) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).