Seniors and Glaucoma: Symptoms, Treatment, and More


Glaucoma might seem like a frightening condition, and for good reason: The Mayo Clinic tells us that glaucoma is one of the leading causes of blindness for seniors over the age of 60. You’ve likely heard that it can creep up on you, and that’s true – which is why it’s so important to see your eye doctor on a regular basis.

The CDC reports that three million people in the United States have glaucoma, but that’s only those who have been diagnosed. Half of those who have glaucoma don’t know they have it. That’s because in most cases, there are no symptoms of glaucoma in the earlier stages. By the time a person knows they have it, they might already have serious vision loss.

Here’s what seniors need to know about glaucoma to keep your vision healthy through your golden years.

What is Glaucoma?

The American Academy of Ophthalmology defines glaucoma as “a disease that damages your eye’s optic nerve.”  The optic nerve is responsible for sending visual information from your eye to your brain; without your optic nerve, you wouldn’t be able to see at all. As the nerve deteriorates, blind spots begin to form in your vision. Left untreated, those blind spots can expand until you lose your sight altogether.

But why does this happen?

There is a lot of fluid in your eye. That fluid is constantly created and replenished. It usually drains away through the tissue where your iris and cornea meet – that tissue is called the trabecular meshwork. If the fluid doesn’t drain properly through that tissue, pressure can build up in your eye. That pressure can lead to glaucoma.

There are several different forms of glaucoma, each with their own characteristics and symptoms. Most of them have no warning signs in the early stages, and most of them involve high pressure in your eye[1].

·         Open-angle glaucoma. This is the most common type of glaucoma. There are no symptoms of this in the early stages, but gradually you will see small blind spots in your peripheral vision. Left untreated, that can advance to problems with central vision.

·         Normal-tension glaucoma. In this type of glaucoma, eye pressure is perfectly normal. Experts aren’t sure why damage happens, but it might have to do with inadequate blood flow to the optic nerve. This presents with no symptoms in the early stages. Eventually, your vision becomes blurry, and as the disease progresses, you lose peripheral vision.

·         Acute angle-closure glaucoma. This form has many symptoms, including a severe headache and pain around the eyes, blurred vision, seeing colored rings (halos) around lights, red eyes, and nausea or vomiting. This can occur suddenly but it can also be gradual, with a worsening of symptoms over time.

·         Pigmentary glaucoma. In this form of glaucoma, tiny bits of pigment break off from the iris and block drainage from the eye. Your vision becomes blurry with exercise or exertion. You’ll see halos around lights and eventually lose your peripheral vision.

Any problem with your eyes that comes on suddenly is a true medical emergency. The sooner you get the help you need, the more likely you are to retain or restore your vision.

Eye problems can be quite scary, as any problem with your vision makes accidents more likely to occur. Medical alert technology can provide excellent peace of mind for those who have trouble with their vision. In any type of accident or emergency, those with a medical alert pendant or watch can simply press the button and get help right away.

Risk Factors for Glaucoma

It’s important to be aware of the risk factors for glaucoma. Remember, glaucoma can come on gradually and damage your eyes well before you notice any symptoms. Risk factors for glaucoma include[2][3]:

·         High intraocular pressure (eye pressure)

·         Seniors over the age of 55 are more likely to develop it, but anyone over the age of 40 is at risk

·         Those with Black, Hispanic, or Asian heritage

·         A family history of the disease

·         Extreme nearsightedness or farsightedness

·         Long-term use of corticosteroids, especially eye drops

·         Certain medical conditions that can affect the eye, including diabetes, high blood pressure, sickle cell anemia, and migraines

·         Sustaining an eye injury or having certain types of eye surgery

·         Corneas that are thinner than usual

·         Thinning of the optic nerve

·         Narrow drainage angles in the eyes

If you have any of these risk factors, it’s important to be proactive. Protecting yourself from glaucoma starts by knowing the facts – and you’re reading them right now!

How Can I Be Tested for Glaucoma?

In the past, eye doctors checked for glaucoma by dilating your eyes. They did this by applying eye drops that would open your pupil and allow them to better see the inside of your eye. That might have included a visual field test to check your peripheral vision. That’s still what some doctors might choose to do to test for glaucoma.

Some eye doctors will test your eye pressure by using a small puff of air. They will point an instrument at your eye and apply a single, quick puff. Though it might feel unnerving to have a puff of air hit your eye, it’s not painful. That instrument then gives them a reading of your eye pressure.

But there is a more modern and increasingly common test known as tonometry. This test is performed with a small device that presses briefly against your eye. Here’s how it works[4]:

·         Your doctor will apply numbing eye drops to your eye. You’ll wait for a few minutes to make sure your eyes are numb.

·         The doctor then gently presses an instrument against your eye. You might feel pressure but you should feel no pain. This instrument might be handheld or mounted on a larger device. It glows with a soothing blue light.

·         The instrument measures the pressure in each eye.

In most cases, normal pressure is between 10 and 21 mmHg (fun fact: that stands for “millimeters of mercury”). If you’re diagnosed with glaucoma, you likely have a pressure measurement that is above 21 mmHg. However, some individuals with “normal” pressure wind up with glaucoma. And some people simply have a higher measurement as their norm. That means that while their measurement might be elevated, that’s just how their eyes work, and they might never develop glaucoma.

How to Protect Yourself from Glaucoma

The most important way to protect yourself from this silent disease is through regular checkups with your eye doctor.

Seniors need eye exams every one to two years. However, if you have several risk factors for glaucoma or are showing signs of high eye pressure, you might need to make a visit to the eye doctor more often[5].

Remember that for those in high-risk groups, Medicare pays for a glaucoma test once a year and if you are diagnosed with glaucoma, Medicare covers the treatments.[6]

Other ways to protect yourself from glaucoma include:

·         Use eye protection when playing sports, working with power tools, or otherwise engaging in activities that could easily lead to eye injury. Serious injury to the eye can lead to glaucoma.

·         Ask around to see if anyone in your family has glaucoma or has been diagnosed with increased eye pressure. You might need more frequent screening if the problem runs in your family.

·         Use any prescribed medications your doctor might give you exactly as directed. Eye drops can help keep the pressure down and decrease your risk of serious problems from glaucoma.

If you have any issues with low vision or have been diagnosed with glaucoma, remember that you are at greater risk of falls than someone who has perfect vision. That’s one reason why it’s so important to consider an affordable medical alert system with fall detection. These systems from Alert1 can protect you from the dire consequences of a serious fall by detecting the fall as it occurs. The device then sends an alert for help without you having to do anything.

The Treatments for Glaucoma

Though glaucoma can’t be cured, it can be controlled enough to prevent loss of vision. Your eye doctor can recommend the right course of action for your particular situation. The most common treatment is prescription eye drops that lower the pressure in the eye. The National Eye Institute points out that depending upon your situation, you might need to use the drops up to four times a day. Remember that these eye drops might not help any lost vision, but that’s because they are designed to prevent further damage. Damage that has already occurred can’t be reversed with eye drops.

Laser treatment is also an option. Though this might sound scary, it’s actually a rather simple procedure that can be performed right there in the doctor’s office. This treatment works for open-angle glaucoma by helping the fluid to drain away, thus relieving the pressure[7].

If medicines and laser treatments don’t work, there are a variety of surgeries for glaucoma that can help the fluid drain from the eye.

If you have been diagnosed with glaucoma, stay on top of your medication regimen. See your doctor for regular checkups and let them know right away if you notice any differences in your vision or if you are experiencing any side effects from your medication.

If you are dealing with any sort of vision loss, the safety and security of an affordable medical alert wireless device can’t be overstated. Not only does vision loss put you at greater risk of falls, it can also make it more difficult to use a phone to call for help if you need it. This peace of mind takes one less worry off your plate and allows you to enjoy life to the fullest!