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Facts about Glaucoma and America’s Veterans

A tech operates a device to examine a man's eyes

Have regular check-ups by an eye care provider (ophthalmologist or optometrist) to watch for changes in pressure and side vision.

by Hans Petersen, VA Staff Writer
Thursday, January 23, 2014

Glaucoma Awareness Month

January is Glaucoma Awareness Month, time to remind all Veterans to take action now to prevent this sight-stealing disease.

One-and-a-half million Veterans have a vision threatening eye disease including 285,000 with glaucoma.

African-American Veterans should especially get their eyes checked regularly as glaucoma is six-to-eight times more common in African-Americans than Caucasians. Also, among Hispanic populations, glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness.

Starts without Symptoms

The highest risk group is those Veterans over 60. What is glaucoma? Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases in which the optic nerve, a bundle of over one million nerves that convey vision from the eye to the brain, slowly becomes damaged over time. In many cases, blood flow to the optic nerve is reduced and may be further reduced by increased fluid pressure inside the eyes slowly rising, leading to vision loss or even blindness.

Glaucoma usually starts without any symptoms. Later, there is some loss of side vision. Objects straight ahead are seen clearly, but objects to the side are missed. As the disease worsens, the ability to see objects on the side is increasingly lost and eventually the center of vision is affected.

 Glaucoma is six-to-eight times more common in African-Americans than Caucasians. 

The test for glaucoma is painless. Your VA doctor will test the pressure in your eye by placing an instrument on its surface. If there is a suspicion for glaucoma, the appearance and function of the optic nerve are tested with a visual field test and a special retina camera both of which can detect damage to the optic nerves.

Glaucoma is treated with eye drops, but in some cases, eye surgery is necessary to optimally lower the eye pressure. These treatments work to either make less fluid or to improve its drainage out of the eye.

Glaucoma is a life-long problem. Veterans should have regular check-ups by an ophthalmologist or optometrist to watch for changes in pressure and side vision.

Cutting Edge Research

VA is working hard to help prevent Veterans’ eye problems at the Iowa City VA Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Visual Loss.

The Center conducts cutting-edge research in the diagnosis of visual loss and works to understand the underlying mechanisms and causes of visual loss. With this research, the Center can study new approaches toward rehabilitation and treatment of visual loss, while improving education and clinical care of our nation’s veterans.

According to Dr. Randy H. Kardon, Director of the Center, “glaucoma is one of the silent causes of vision loss. Patients are unaware that they are slowly losing vision until it is too late, at which time the loss is permanent. That is why it is so important for veterans to have regular eye exams to check for any sign that glaucoma is developing and to be treated, if glaucoma is detected.”

VA spends a significant portion of its medical care dollars toward detecting and monitoring of treatment of vision loss. Last year there were more than 2.9 million Veteran visits in VA Eye Care optometry and ophthalmology clinics*.

Portable Digital Eye Cameras

The Center of Excellence for the Prevention and Treatment of Visual Loss is helping to solve this problem through new methods of detection, understanding the underlying mechanisms of disease, developing new treatment strategies and telemedicine initiatives.

The Center’s efforts focus on prevention of blindness using innovative telemedicine efforts for detection and monitoring of disease and molecular approaches to new treatments. Center Associate Director Dr. Michael Abramoff and his colleagues, including investigator Mona Garvin, Ph.D., are developing portable digital eye cameras along with cutting edge software that automatically analyze images of the optic nerve to diagnose glaucoma and determine if it is changing with time. Investigators from the Center are also testing new molecules that protect the optic nerve from damage and help preserve vision, in addition to lowering eye pressure.

* Editor’s note: [The data, five million, was wrong in the original posting.]