MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – With January’s observance of Glaucoma Awareness Month, it’s the perfect time to think about scheduling a comprehensive dilated eye exam at the WVU Eye Institute, especially for at-risk individuals.

“Glaucoma is known as the ‘Sneak Thief of Sight’ because in almost all cases, there are no symptoms, like pain or sudden vision loss. You only recognize the loss of sight when a lot of damage has occurred,” Ronald Gross, M.D., director of the WVU Eye Institute and chair of the WVU Department of Ophthalmology, said. “If diagnosed early and treated, most vision loss can be prevented. You have to be checked with a full eye exam to be sure.”

Approximately 2.7 million Americans have the potentially blinding eye disease glaucoma, but only half are aware of it. Meanwhile, glaucoma incidence is on the rise. Researchers predict that glaucoma will affect as many as 6.3 million Americans by 2050.

Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases that damage the optic nerve, which links the eyes to the brain. It is most commonly associated with elevated pressure inside the eye, known as intraocular pressure, or IOP. Without treatment, glaucoma can cause irreversible vision loss in a person’s side vision, then in his or her central vision. With early diagnosis and treatment, sight can be preserved. However, glaucoma has no noticeable symptoms in its early stages, so it is imperative that people know the risk factors.

Certain factors can increase an individual’s risk of developing glaucoma, including:

  • Family history: Individuals with a parent or sibling who has glaucoma have a nine times higher risk of developing the disease, according to one study.
  • Older age: As people age, their risk for glaucoma increases. Because this is the case for several eye diseases, it is recommended that adults start getting regular comprehensive eye exams at age 40. This is the age when early signs of eye disease and changes in vision may first occur, even if a person has seemingly perfect vision. It is important to get comprehensive eye exams from an ophthalmologist, a physician specializing in medical and surgical eye care.
  • African, Hispanic, or Asian heritage: People of African and Hispanic heritage are three times more likely to have the most common form of glaucoma, known as angle-closure glaucoma than Caucasians. Glaucoma-related blindness is at least six times more prevalent in African Americans than in Caucasian Americans. Additionally, people of Asian heritage are at an increased risk of a sudden and acute form of glaucoma known as angle-closure glaucoma.
  • Nearsightedness: People who are nearsighted are more likely to have glaucoma. One study even found that the more severe the nearsightedness, the higher the risk of glaucoma.
  • Type 2 diabetes: Having type 2 diabetes increases risk of glaucoma. The longer a person has lived with diabetes, the greater his or her risk for glaucoma becomes.

Glaucoma treatment ranges from medicated eye drops to a variety of surgeries that can help reduce high IOP. This may involve procedures that make small changes in the eye to help fluid drain more easily. In some cases, small devices known as shunts or stents are inserted in the eye to increase the flow of the eye’s fluid.

A nationally recognized center for vision care, research, education, and outreach, the WVU Eye Institute provides the full range of eye care under one roof – from routine exams to subspecialty medical and surgical treatment and laser vision correction. Each year, more than 35,000 patients from all over West Virginia and surrounding states receive treatment at the WVU Eye Institute.

To learn more about the WVU Eye Institute or to make an appointment, call 304-598-4820 or visit www.wvumedicine.org/eye.

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For more information: Amy Johns, Director of Public Affairs, 304-293-7087