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Glaucoma Is The Leading Cause Of Blindness In African Americans

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Dear Dr. Levister: I was recently diagnosed with glaucoma. I’m only 37-years-old. Does this run in families? P.A.

Dear P.A.: Glaucoma is a complicated disease in which damage to the optic nerve results in vision loss. It is the leading cause of blindness in African Americans. Half of those with glaucoma don't know they have it. In African Americans, glaucoma generally occurs earlier, often with a greater rate of vision loss.

Glaucoma occurs about five times more often in African Americans with extreme nearsightedness, diabetes, hypertension and those under prolonged steroid use.

There are several forms of glaucoma; the two most common forms are primary open-angle glaucoma (POAG) and angle-closure glaucoma (ACG).

Glaucoma strikes earlier and progresses faster in African Americans. The risk for glaucoma is 20% higher if glaucoma is in your family.

Research has shown that siblings of persons diagnosed with glaucoma have nearly a 10-fold increased risk of having glaucoma when compared to siblings of persons without glaucoma.

This means that a 65-year-old sibling of a European-derived person has about a 10% chance of having glaucoma, while a 65-year-old sibling of an African American has nearly a 20% chance of having glaucoma.

The reasons for the higher rate of glaucoma and subsequent blindness among African Americans are still unknown. However, research shows that African Americans are genetically more at risk for glaucoma, making early detection and treatment all the more important.

Don't wait for noticeable eye problems. Primary open-angle glaucoma gives few warning signs or symptoms until permanent damage has already occurred.

Most treatments for glaucoma are designed to lower and/or control intraocular pressure (IOP), which can damage the optic nerve that transmits visual information to the brain.

Glaucoma eye drops often are the first choice over glaucoma surgery and can be very effective at controlling IOP to prevent eye damage.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends a comprehensive eye exam for all adults, and every three to five years after that if you don't have any glaucoma risk factors. After age 60, you should be screened every year. If you are African-American or have other risk factors for glaucoma, your doctor likely will recommend periodic eye exams starting between ages 20 and 39, and every one to two years after age 40. Although much still needs to be learned about why African Americans are more at risk for glaucoma, one thing is certain. Early diagnosis and treatment is key in preventing vision loss from glaucoma.

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