Be Prepared: Understanding Glaucoma Risk Factors
Glaucoma occurs when pressure in the eye damages the optic nerve, the nerve that connects the eye to the brain. Glaucoma causes slow but progressive and irreversible damage that over time leads to loss of vision. We cannot undo damage once it occurs, but if detected early, we can lower the eye pressure and prevent the damage from worsening. People are generally unaware of any glaucoma damage until it is quite advanced – that is why it needs to be screened for. This generally occurs when you visit an Optometrist for an updated pair of glasses – a good optometrist would not only check you for glasses, but also for potential signs of common diseases like glaucoma.
It is important to understand the risk factors for glaucoma, as those with increased risk for glaucoma should be monitored more regularly and that monitoring should begin earlier in life. Risk factors for glaucoma are as follows:
- Genes/family history
Genes play an important role in glaucoma risk. Some genetic diseases are based on one set of genes; in contrast glaucoma is polygenic: there are many (hundreds) of genes that each contribute a little to a person’s glaucoma risk. Currently we are unable to quantify a person’s risk based on their genes but hopefully this technology will be available soon. In the meantime, it is important to take note of your family history: does anyone in your family have, or had glaucoma? Not just parents and siblings, but uncles, aunts and grandparents. If glaucoma runs in your family, speak to your Optometrist or Ophthalmologist about at what age, and how frequently, you should be monitored for glaucoma.
Age is another important risk factor for glaucoma. In general, the risk and severity of glaucoma increases with age. While genes are acquired at birth, some of their effect only becomes apparent later in life. If you have a family history of glaucoma, a guide to at what age to begin monitoring is the age at which your relatives first had glaucoma detected.
- Short sightedness
People who are short sighted are at increased risk of developing glaucoma – this risk increases with the degree of short-sightedness. Often the short-sighted eye can have features that look like glaucoma without necessarily having glaucoma. Even the diagnostic tests for glaucoma, such as the visual field test, can have changes induced by short-sightedness that look like glaucoma. This is why many people with higher degrees of short-sightedness need careful monitoring for glaucoma over time.
- Previous eye trauma
Eye trauma can lead to glaucoma later in life. Sometime this only develops, years, even decades after the initial trauma. If you have had trauma to one of your eyes then you should be monitored regularly for raised eye pressure.
- Other health conditions
Other health conditions can increase the risk of glaucoma. These include low blood pressure, uncontrolled diabetes, obstructive sleep apnoea, and frequent migraines.
- Other eye conditions
Eyes that have had other diseases and conditions, and often multiple procedures or operations, are at increased risk of glaucoma. Previous eye inflammation, bleeding or problems of the veins and arteries of the eyes can lead to glaucoma, as can multiple surgeries for corneal or retinal diseases.