Our eyes provide a portal through which many of us experience the world, make decisions, and capture memories. For many of us, losing our vision would mean losing significant quality of life. With age it is not uncommon to experience changes in your vision, though the majority of these changes will not lead to blindness. Unfortunately, however, there are some diseases, such as glaucoma, that can lead to permanent vision loss if not treated properly.
Glaucoma is a disease of the optic nerve. The optic nerve begins at the back of our eye. It receives all the information taken in by our eye from the world around us and transmits that information to our brain. It is our brain that then organizes and presents that information to us. When the optic nerve is damaged in glaucoma, that communication between the world around us and our brain is interrupted. As a result our vision is diminished and can eventually be gone all together.
All of the factors that lead to glaucoma have not been identified, but a very large risk factor is having increased pressure within the eye. The front portion of the eye is filled with fluid that is continually drained and replaced. If too much fluid is produced or if fluid is not drained well, the result is increased pressure within the eye. It is believed that this increased pressure contributes to the damage to the optic nerve in glaucoma. There are many patients, however, that can develop glaucoma with normal pressures in their eye. Other risk factors for developing glaucoma are having severe myopia (nearsightedness), diabetes, or having a family history of glaucoma.
According to a study done by the Wilmer Eye Institute of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in 2001, Latinos are at higher risk for glaucoma than Caucasians. The study, called Proyecto Ver, also found glaucoma to be the most common cause of blindness in both eyes among Latinos. Even more alarming, is that only 38% of Latinos in their study who were diagnosed with glaucoma were aware that they had glaucoma. That means that the majority of Latino patients diagnosed with glaucoma in this study were not receiving treatment that could help preserve their vision.
A different study done in Los Angeles by the Doheny Eye Institute found that Latinos over the age of 60 years old are at a particularly high risk for glaucoma. They also estimated that the overall prevalence of glaucoma was 5% in the Latino communities of Los Angeles (5 out of 100 people). This would make the disease almost four times more likely in Latino patients when compared to Caucasians. Similar to the Proyecto Ver study, they found that 75% of Latinos who were diagnosed with glaucoma during the study were not aware that they had the disease.
The treatment for glaucoma is centered on controlling the pressure within the eye. This often can be accomplished with special eye drops, but may also require surgery in more difficult cases. These treatments have been shown to slow and even stop the progression of glaucoma. Remember that you will often not experience visual symptoms until the disease is advanced. It is important that you discuss with your doctor the need for an eye exam. According to the Glaucoma Research Foundation, you should consider a full eye exam if you are over the age of 40. You may consider an eye exam even earlier if you have diabetes or a family history of glaucoma.
For more information about glaucoma you can speak with your doctor and visit the website for the Glaucoma Research Foundation at www.glaucoma.org.
Kyle MacLean grew up in Richland, Washington. He attended Brigham Young University as an undergraduate and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Neuroscience. He is currently a fourth year medical student at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. He actively participates in the local chapter of the Latino Medical Student Association and will graduate in the Latino Health Pathway. The Latino Medical Student Association is a national organization whose mission is to educate and advocate for the health needs of the Latino community. LMSA members, including Kyle, contribute to CNY Latino and are raising awareness regarding the many health issues affecting the Latinos of Central NY and beyond. He lives in Rochester with his beautiful wife and daughter.