For years, Andrew Iwach, executive director of the Glaucoma Center of San Francisco, has been trying to convince patients to kick their smoking habit. Words like emphysema and lung cancer weren’t always successful. But when people learned that puffing could increase their risk of glaucoma, well, that was a different story. “I’ve helped more patients quit smoking by letting them know smoking affects vision loss,” says Iwach, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Little wonder. As far as illnesses go, a diagnosis of glaucoma can be particularly devastating. The disease is sneaky: It develops slowly, often without warning, and can lead to irreversible blindness if it’s not treated in time. Glaucoma is caused by fluid building up in the front part of your eye, increasing pressure and damaging the optic nerve — a kind of electric cable that sends visual information from the eyeball to the brain.
More than 2.7 million Americans over 40 have glaucoma, but only half are aware of it, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. The disease is one of the world’s leading cause of blindness. Particularly at risk: people over the age of 40. The Glaucoma Research Foundation reports that you’re six times more likely to get glaucoma if you’re over 60. Also more vulnerable than average are those with a family history of the disease, African Americans, Hispanics, people with diabetes and smokers.
Types of glaucoma
A rare, but potentially more damaging, form of the disease is caused when “the iris bulges forward and blocks the drainage angle in the eye,” says Sayoko Moroi, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based ophthalmologist and professor of ophthalmology at the University of Michigan’s Kellogg Eye Center. When the drainage angle gets completely blocked, eye pressure rises quickly.
Signs of an acute attack include sudden blurry vision, severe eye pain, a headache, nausea and/or vomiting, and seeing rainbow-colored rings or halos around lights. Anyone with these symptoms should be checked by their ophthalmologist as soon as possible; angle-closure glaucoma can cause irreversible vision loss if not treated right away.