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Glaucoma in Older Adults: Signs and Symptoms to Look For

Glaucoma in Older Adults: Signs and Symptoms to Look For

Glaucoma is one of the leading causes of blindness worldwide. And although it can affect people of all ages, older adults tend to be at a greater risk of developing it. Glaucoma in older adults often has no visual signs or symptoms, leading it to be called “the silent thief of sight.”

Our vision is something we take for granted almost every day. It isn’t until we begin to have difficulty with our eyesight that we realize just how dependent we are on this sense. Sure, many of us may have had to get glasses at a young age or as we got older, but the spectacles fixed our eye problem. Once we put on our glasses or pop in our contacts, we go about our day as if all is fine.

Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy fix for more serious eye diseases, such as glaucoma, which can’t be easily ignored. If left untreated, glaucoma can result in vision loss and blindness.

What is Glaucoma?

Glaucoma is a progressive eye disease that, over time, damages your eye’s optic nerve. Your optic nerve is responsible for conveying sight information to the brain. Glaucoma develops when intraocular fluid fails to circulate properly. This results in a build of fluid, causing pressure to increase inside the eye.

There are several types of glaucoma, but many ophthalmologists group the disease into two main types: open-angle glaucoma and angle-closure glaucoma.

Open-angle glaucoma is the most common form of glaucoma and accounts for at least 90% of all cases. Open-angle glaucoma occurs when the angle where the iris (the colored part of your eye) meets the cornea is as wide and open as it should be. This type of glaucoma causes pressure to build gradually over time.

Angle-closure glaucoma, also called narrow-angle or acute glaucoma, is when the outer edge of the iris blocks fluid from draining out of the front of the eye. This results from the angle between the iris and cornea closing. When this occurs, fluid builds up quickly, and there’s a sudden rise in intraocular pressure. Angle-closure glaucoma is an emergency and demands medical attention immediately.

Signs and Symptoms to Look For With Glaucoma

Unfortunately, glaucoma doesn’t usually have many early signs or symptoms. With open-angle glaucoma, the pressure develops slowly, so any changes in eyesight don’t become evident for many years. However, as the disease progresses, blind spots may begin to appear, and a loss in your peripheral vision can occur. That’s why it’s important to have regular eye exams so you can have your eyes dilated and tested for any unusual pressure or damage.

With angle-closure glaucoma, there’s a possibility that you may experience some warning signs and symptoms. Early symptoms of an attack include blurred vision, halos, mild headaches, or eye pain. If you experience any of these warning signs, you should schedule an appointment with your ophthalmologist right away. Symptoms signaling you may be having an attack of angle-closure glaucoma include:

  • severe pain in the eye or forehead
  • redness of the eye
  • decreased vision or blurred vision
  • seeing rainbows or halos
  • headache
  • nausea
  • vomiting

If you experience any of these symptoms, you should seek medical attention immediately. If left untreated, angle-closure glaucoma can result in blindness in a matter of days.

Who’s At Risk For Developing Glaucoma

As we mentioned earlier, anyone can get glaucoma, but there are some who are at a greater risk of getting it. For example, your risk of developing glaucoma increases with age. Adults over the age of 60 are six times more likely to suffer from glaucoma.

Having a family history also puts you at a greater risk of getting the eye disease. Ethnicity, too, is a risk factor, with African American, Hispanic, and Asian heritages all having an increased risk of developing glaucoma. For example, African Americans are six to eight times more likely to have glaucoma than Caucasians. And those of Asian descent are at a greater risk of experiencing angle-closure glaucoma.

Diabetes, high blood pressure, and steroidal use increase your risk of glaucoma. So, it’s not just important to take good care of your eyes to protect your vision but also your overall health to help prevent potential eye issues.

older man putting in medicated eye drops for glaucoma

How Is Glaucoma Treated?

The best treatment for glaucoma is early detection. It’s vital to diagnose glaucoma in the early stages of the disease. Unfortunately, you can’t reverse the damage already caused to your eye, but you can help to prevent further damage from happening.

Doctors typically rely on three methods to treat glaucoma: medicine, laser treatment, and surgery. In the early stages, prescription eye drops are the most common form of treatment for glaucoma.

Eye drops prescribed work to decrease the production of fluid within the eye and also increase the drainage of fluid. Laser treatment can be combined with eye drops to help further drain the fluid out of the eye. Most laser treatments can be performed in-office and are usually 80% effective.

For more severe cases or if other treatments were unsuccessful, surgery may be performed to relieve pressure by helping to drain the fluid. However, surgery is more aggressive and comes with an increased risk of complications.

Can You Prevent Glaucoma?

Preventing and treating glaucoma in older adults is a team effort where you must take a proactive role in your health, which includes your vision. While there’s no real way to prevent glaucoma from occurring entirely, there are things you can do to prevent blindness or vision loss as a result of having glaucoma. Prevention lies solely in lowering your risk.

Regular exercise can help to prevent or manage diabetes and high blood pressure. In addition, protecting your eyes by wearing protective eyewear during sports or while engaged in home improvement projects can help to prevent unnecessary eye injuries that result in glaucoma.

And again, the most important thing you can do to protect your eyes from glaucoma is to have regular comprehensive eye exams. Speak to your doctor if you have specific questions or concerns. If you’re experiencing any changes in your vision or demonstrating any of the warning signs discussed above, let your doctor know.

Glaucoma is a serious eye disease in older adults, but prevention and early treatment can help to keep its damaging effects at bay.