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Glaucoma

Glaucoma is the name given to a group of eye diseases that damage the optic nerve. This damage can lead to vision loss, including blindness.

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What is glaucoma?

The eye works a bit like a camera, capturing light and converting it to electrical signals. These signals are sent to the brain via the optic nerve, similar to a cable connecting a camera to a computer.

Glaucoma causes damage to the optic nerve. This can make it more difficult for images captured by the eye to reach the brain. If left untreated, it can lead to permanent vision loss and eventually, blindness.

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How common is glaucoma?

Glaucoma is the leading cause of irreversible blindness worldwide.

An estimated 300,000 Australians have glaucoma but about half these people don’t know they have the disease. One in eight people over the age of 80 has glaucoma.

The most common form of glaucoma in Australia is primary open-angle glaucoma, accounting for around 90 percent of cases. It typically occurs in people of northern European descent. Another form of glaucoma – acute-angle glaucoma – is more common in Asian people.

What are the causes and risk factors?

The most common cause of glaucoma is too much fluid pressure inside the eye. This pressure builds over time and pushes against the optic nerve, causing injury.

Glaucoma can affect anyone, but the risk increases if you’re aged 50 years or older.

If you have a family history of glaucoma you’re more likely to develop the disease. Your risk increases up to 10-fold if your parent or sibling has glaucoma.

Other factors that can increase your risk of glaucoma include:

  • High eye pressure
  • Being of African or Asian descent
  • High degree of long or short sightedness
  • Serious eye injury
  • Diabetes
  • Abnormally high or low blood pressure
  • A prolonged course of steroid medication.

What are the signs and symptoms?

Glaucoma typically progresses slowly and you may not notice any symptoms until vision loss is advanced.

Symptoms may include:

  • Painless, blurred vision
  • Loss of peripheral vision
  • Difficulty adjusting to low light.

If you notice these symptoms, see your eye health provider.

How is glaucoma diagnosed?

Regular eye checks are the only way to catch glaucoma early, before there is permanent damage to your sight.

An eye check usually only takes around 30 minutes, and it’s often bulk billed to Medicare. Check with your eye care provider if this is the case.

If you’re aged 50 or over, now’s the time to book an eye test. However, if you have any risk factors for glaucoma – particularly a family history – you should start getting regular eye checks from age 40. You may need to begin even earlier if an immediate family member developed glaucoma before turning 40.

What treatment is available?

There is currently no cure for glaucoma and once vision loss occurs, it cannot be restored.

Fortunately, there are medical treatments – like prescription eye drops, laser therapy and surgery – that can help slow, or even stop, vision loss.

These treatments all aim to lower pressure in the eye. They either help eye fluid drain better or reduce the amount of fluid the eye makes. Reducing eye pressure can protect the optic nerve from further damage.

Can glaucoma be prevented?

There are no known ways to prevent glaucoma but regular eye checks can help detect glaucoma before symptoms arise. The earlier you get treated, the more likely your sight can be saved.

What glaucoma research is happening at CERA?

CERA researchers are among the world’s top scientists investigating the causes of glaucoma and how it can be better treated. Their goal is to not only prevent vision loss from glaucoma, but to potentially restore sight that has already been lost.

Current research projects are investigating:

How can I help?

You can support glaucoma research at CERA by making a donation or volunteering for a research trial.

To learn more about glaucoma, subscribe to monthly emails and get your free Get to Know Glaucoma guide.

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