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Elders in the Spotlight: Alaska Natives more susceptible to glaucoma

Jan. 28, 2014

January is National Glaucoma Awareness month, and the National Eye Institute wants to remind people, especially Alaska Natives age 40 and up, to get an eye exam to prevent permanent blindness due to glaucoma.

Dr. Ann Coleman is a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine, and Chair of the National Eye Institute Glaucoma Subcommittee. She says the disease is associated with high pressure in the eye that damages the optic nerve.

“The problem with glaucoma is that usually there are no early warning signs,” says Coleman. “So people can be losing vision and not even know it until they’ve lost a significant amount of their vision.”

The state’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, an ongoing telephone survey of Alaskans about their health, shows glaucoma affects a higher percentage of Alaska Natives -- 4.8 percent -- than non-Natives -- at 3.2 percent. Coleman says that’s because among Alaska Natives, the shape of the area where the optic nerve and blood vessels enter the retina tends to be cupped, creating pressure.

“The shape of the eye is a little different and so they’re at risk for the fluid building up very quickly in the eye,” says Coleman. “So they can have symptoms where they’ll see colored halos around pinpoints of light, or be getting really significant eye pain, or headaches, nausea, or vomiting from the high eye pressure.”

Coleman says the best way to prevent eye damage from glaucoma is to catch it early through an exam in which the doctor dilates the pupil of the eye and examines the shape and condition of the optic nerve area.

“The main thing is to get your nerves evaluated and to have someone, especially if your Native American in Alaska, to evaluate your angles and to be seeing an eye doctor if you have any symptoms, or even just for a baseline exam at about the age of 40 and then the doctor can determine how often you need to be seen.”

Once detected, glaucoma can be managed using treatments such as eye drops, laser surgery, or the insertion of drainage tubes.

Joaqlin Estus reported this story through a MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.