Glaucoma continues to be a major cause of preventable blindness in the western world, and cases of the eye disease look set to increase in Ireland over the coming years, the Irish College of Ophthalmologists (ICO) has warned.
According to the ICO, glaucoma is often referred to as the ‘silent thief of sight' because in the early stages, it is practically symptomless and the only way to detect it is through regular eye examinations.
"The importance of having a regular routine eye exam to help prevent avoidable glaucoma-related vision loss cannot be over-emphasised. Often the early signs of glaucoma are picked up during a routine spectacle prescription eye check-up with an optometrist and a referral will be made for the individual to be seen by an ophthalmologist (eye doctor) for a full comprehensive eye examination so a diagnosis can be made," explained eye surgeon and glaucoma specialist, Ms Aoife Doyle of the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital in Dublin.
She pointed out that with this condition, vision loss often progresses at such a gradual rate, those affected are unaware they have it until their sight has already been compromised.
"It is crucial that people remember that once vision is lost to glaucoma, it cannot be restored, however with early diagnosis and careful regular observation and treatment, damage can usually be kept to a minimum, and good vision can be enjoyed indefinitely. The test to detect the condition is non-invasive and gives an immediate result," Ms Doyle noted.
An estimated 3% of people over the age of 50 in Ireland already have glaucoma and the Central Statistics Office estimates that the prevalence of the condition will jump by 33% by 2021, due to our ageing population.
Those most at risk of developing the eye disease are people over the age of 60, those with a family history of it, and people of African and Hispanic descent.
"There are different types of glaucoma and some people are at greater risk and may need to see their eye doctor on a more frequent basis. People of African origin are more at risk of developing glaucoma and of developing it at a younger age. For this reason, regular comprehensive eye exams to catch symptoms early are essential," Ms Doyle said.
The most common type of glaucoma is open-angle glaucoma, which occurs when tissue in the eye gradually becomes less efficient at draining fluid. When this happens, eye pressure rises, causing irreparable damage to the optic nerve.
Without proper treatment to stop this nerve damage, open-angle glaucoma patients usually lose peripheral (side) vision first, before eventually going blind. Thankfully, most vision loss from glaucoma can be prevented with early detection and regular medical intervention.
The ICO recommends that all adults have a baseline, comprehensive dilated eye exam by the age of 40, which is the time when early signs of disease and changes in vision often start to appear.
For people age 60 and older, the ICO recommends having a comprehensive eye exam every one to two years, or as directed by their GP, optometrist or eye doctor.
If you are concerned about your eye health, it is important to have your eyes examined by an eye doctor. For an appointment to see any medical specialist working in the HSE, including eye doctors, you need to get a referral from your GP.
The ICO is highlighting this issue as part of World Glaucoma Week, which runs from March 11-17. For more information, click here