DEAR MAYO CLINIC: I'm 53 and have never had trouble with my eyesight, but my mother has glaucoma, which I know increases my risk of getting it. Is there anything I can do to prevent glaucoma? How often should I have an eye exam?
You're correct that a family history of glaucoma raises the risk of developing this serious eye disease. It is currently not clear if lifestyle changes can decrease your risk of glaucoma, so it is crucial that you get eye exams on a regular basis. A comprehensive eye exam can help detect glaucoma in the early stages when it's most successfully treated.
Glaucoma is a disorder that damages the optic nerve. In its advanced stages, it can impair vision and eventually lead to blindness. In most cases of glaucoma, the optic nerve is damaged by a rise in pressure within the eye due to a buildup of the fluid that flows in and out of the eye.
In addition to having a family history of glaucoma, risk factors for the disease may include high or low blood pressure, as well as other medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and hypothyroidism. Other eye problems may increase your risk of developing glaucoma as well, including eye inflammation, retinal detachment and lens dislocation. A severe eye injury can put you at risk for glaucoma, as can certain types of eye surgery and being nearsighted or farsighted.
Ethnic background also appears to have an impact on a person's risk of developing glaucoma. African-Americans and Latinos who are older than 40 have a much higher risk of developing glaucoma than Caucasians. African-Americans also are more likely to suffer permanent blindness as a result of glaucoma. People of some Asian backgrounds have an increased risk of developing glaucoma, as well.
Prompt treatment of eye problems and good management of other underlying medical conditions may help reduce the risk of developing glaucoma. Some research suggests that eating a healthy diet may reduce your glaucoma risk, too.
Certain dietary supplements touted as promoting eye health claim to be able to prevent glaucoma. But at this time, there's no solid evidence that these products -- often marketed as "eye vitamins" -- can prevent, manage or treat glaucoma.
In its early stages, glaucoma usually doesn't show any symptoms. Typically it's not until the late stages of the disease that people who have glaucoma begin to notice eye problems, such as loss of peripheral vision. That's why it's so important to get regular eye exams, particularly if you are at high risk for developing glaucoma.
In general, a comprehensive eye exam is recommended once every two to four years for people between the ages of 40 and 54, and every one to three years for people between the ages of 55 and 64, even if you have no problems with your eyes or your vision. After age 65, you should have a comprehensive eye exam every one to two years. Depending on your risk factors, these exams may need to be more frequent.
If an exam shows that your internal eye pressure is higher than normal, that means you're at increased risk of developing glaucoma. It is important to note, however, that not everyone with elevated intraocular pressure develops the disease, and not everyone who has glaucoma has increased eye pressure. If you have elevated eye pressure and your eye doctor indicates that you have a high risk of developing glaucoma, eye drops may be prescribed to reduce the risk that your condition will progress to glaucoma.
In a situation like yours, where family history or other factors put you at higher risk for glaucoma, the key to ensuring long-term eye health is to get regular eye exams. Talk to your doctor about the exam schedule that best fits your needs. -- Arthur Sit, M.D., Ophthalmology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester.
Medical Edge from Mayo Clinic is an educational resource and doesn't replace regular medical care. Email a question to [email][email protected][/email]. For more information, visit www.mayoclinic.org.