Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness globally, with glaucoma following in the number two position. Together these two eye diseases cause visual impairments for hundreds of millions of people worldwide. That’s why efforts like World Glaucoma Week, and other similar campaigns to increase public understanding of eye diseases, are so important.
The fact is that early detection is critical to improving outcomes and preventing blindness. When our eyes seem healthy, it’s easy to forgo routine eye checks. But, some eye diseases, like cataracts and glaucoma, can begin with no apparent signs. We may be completely unaware that a problem exists. The only way to know for sure is to have an eye exam by a qualified eye doctor.
To really understand the importance of regular eye exams, let’s look at exactly what cataracts and glaucoma are and how they are diagnosed:
What is a cataract?
Usually thought of as something that occurs with age, a cataract is a cloudy area in the lens of the eye. (Of course thinking of them as age-related can be misleading as many people in their 40s and 50s develop cataracts.) A cataract forms when proteins in the eye’s lens begin to break down and clump together, forming cloudy areas that can result in dull and blurry vision. The only way to permanently correct vision reduced by cataracts is to undergo cataract surgery, which involves removing the eye’s cloudy lens and replacing it with an artificial lens.
What is glaucoma?
Glaucoma is a disease that damages your eye’s optic nerve. It is often linked to a buildup of fluid pressure inside the eye (known as intraocular pressure). Because the optic nerve is the vehicle that transmits images to the brain, damage to it can cause degrees of vision loss, including patchy or blurry vision, and in some cases loss of central vision. Although it mainly affects people after they reach middle age, anyone of any age can suffer from it. Glaucoma treatments range from medications that reduce pressure to various surgical treatments.
Can both cataracts and glaucoma occur at the same time?
Because both cataracts and glaucoma can be a natural part of the aging process, it is possible to have both simultaneously, especially after age 60. While the two diseases are not otherwise related, meaning one does not cause the other, they can occur at the same time and when this happens it can make treatment more complicated. (For more information on cataract surgery for patients with glaucoma, click here.)
How are cataracts and glaucoma diagnosed?
Both cataracts and glaucoma can be diagnosed during a routine eye exam. An eye doctor will perform several tests including a visual acuity test to see if your vision shows signs of impairment. A slit lamp examination is also common. A slit lamp allows a doctor to see the structures at the front of the eye under magnification, making it easier to detect any abnormalities. Other common eye exam procedures include examination of the retina for which a doctor may use dilating eye drops to widen the pupil and more easily see the back of the eye, tonometry, which measures the inner pressure of the eye, and an examination of the optic nerve. Using routine tests like these, an eye doctor can typically diagnose cataracts and glaucoma as part of a regular eye exam.
Most eye care experts recommend that you get a comprehensive eye exam every one to two years depending on your age, risk factors and whether or not you currently wear corrective lenses. Even if you’ve never needed vision correction and you consider your eyes to be healthy, you should still get an eye exam. Early detection is an important factor in treating common eye diseases like cataracts and glaucoma.
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