School of Medicine physicians and glaucoma researchers in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences will join eye-care professionals around the world March 6 to observe the first World Glaucoma Day. The global initiative is aimed at raising awareness of glaucoma, a disease of the optic nerve that affects 65 million people worldwide.
“Glaucoma is the second-leading cause of blindness in the United States and worldwide,” said Carla J. Siegfried, M.D., associate professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences and a glaucoma specialist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. “At the present time, glaucoma cannot be cured, but early detection and treatment can help preserve sight.”
Siegfried said it is important for people over age 40 to have regular, comprehensive eye exams that include a careful evaluation of the optic nerve and measurement of eye pressure.
Primary open-angle glaucoma, the most common form of the blinding eye disease, affects about 3 million Americans age 40 and older. Half of them are not aware they have the disease. Vision loss occurs when the optic nerve is damaged. In most cases, elevated eye pressure, also called ocular hypertension, contributes to this damage. This causes gradual loss of peripheral (side) vision.
As the disease progresses, the field of vision gradually narrows, and blindness can result. Glaucoma has no early symptoms, and by the time people experience vision problems, they often have a significant amount of optic nerve damage.
WUSTL glaucoma researchers led a national effort that examined whether lowering high pressure in the eye could prevent or delay glaucoma. Michael A. Kass, M.D., head of the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, was the chair of the 22-center Ocular Hypertension Treatment Study (OHTS).
During the OHTS study, patients who received treatment were given commercially available pressure-lowering eye drops. Eye specialists examined patients every six months for a minimum of five years. The drops reduced pressure in the eye by about 20 percent and the risk of glaucoma by more than 50 percent.
“Millions of people around the world are at risk of developing glaucoma because they have elevated pressure in their eyes,” Kass said. “The OHTS study demonstrated that controlling ocular hypertension may delay or possibly even prevent glaucoma, but we can’t help people if they haven’t been examined.”
Siegfried and Kass said eye exams are crucial because anyone can develop glaucoma, and many are unaware they have the disease until after they have suffered a large amount of irreversible vision loss. Those at particular risk include people with a family history of glaucoma, those with high intraocular pressure, everyone over age 60, people with diabetes and African-Americans.
“Glaucoma is about four times more common in African-Americans than in Caucasians, and blindness from glaucoma is about six times more common in African-Americans,” Kass said. “Our research suggests that even when treatment is identical, the risk for African-Americans is still higher, so it’s very important that African-Americans get examined.”