Does Glaucoma Run in Your Family? A Simple Eye Exam Could Save Your Sight!

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Nearly 3 million people have glaucoma, but half do not realize it due to lack of warning symptoms and lack of medical care and insurance. The second leading cause of blindness in America, glaucoma slowly damages the optic nerve, usually from high pressure within the eye. Since many illnesses are hereditary, knowing your family’s background could prepare you to fight diseases such as glaucoma.

"Because glaucoma usually progresses without pain, often the first warning people have is some vision loss; over time a person with glaucoma may notice their side vision gradually failing. That is, objects in the front may still be seen clearly, but objects to the side may be blurry or absent," explains Martin Wand, M.D., Glaucoma EyeCare Program committee chairman for EyeCare America, a public service foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. As the disease worsens, the field of vision can shrink until near or complete blindness.

Those with a family history of glaucoma have a higher risk of developing glaucoma, as do African–Americans and Hispanics. "Glaucoma is six to eight times more common in African Americans than Caucasians, and Hispanics have a 4 percent incidence of glaucoma, more than double that of the general population," notes Dr. Wand.

Other glaucoma risk factors include being 60 years or older and having diabetes, high eye pressure, a history of eye injuries and steroid use.

Although glaucoma has no cure, it can be treated successfully. "Early diagnosis, frequent check–ups, proper on–going treatment and using medication as directed by your doctor are the best defenses against vision loss," says Dr. Wand. Normally, a simple eye dilation exam will suffice for diagnosis of glaucoma, and Medicare covers an annual dilated eye exam for people at risk for glaucoma.

Black Americans who are uninsured and determined to be at risk can utilize EyeCare America’s Glaucoma EyeCare Program (GEP), which promotes early detection and treatment of glaucoma. GEP refers eligible individuals to one of EyeCare America’s 7,500 volunteer ophthalmologists who provide eye exams and initiate treatment when necessary. This exam is free to uninsured, eligible callers.

"Thank you for the opportunity to have my eyes checked. With no health insurance, I was worried about glaucoma, since it runs in my family," said Ellen Linsk, an EyeCare America patient from Altamonte Springs, Fla.

EyeCare America provides a glaucoma risk assessment test on its Web site, and you may also get information by mail by calling its toll–free 24 hour help line. To learn more about EyeCare America’s public service programs or to see if you, a family member or a friend qualify for a free referral, call (800) 391–EYES (3937) or visit www.eyecareamerica.org for more information about glaucoma.

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