Understanding Glaucoma in Seniors: Symptoms, Causes & Management

By Ben Cornu

As we age, our eyesight naturally worsens. But you can prevent or manage some age-related vision changes, helping to maintain vision and independence longer. One of the leading causes of irreversible blindness in seniors is glaucoma.

This stealthy eye condition often creeps in without noticeable symptoms. As a result, it is crucial for seniors and their families to know its causes, symptoms, and preventive measures.

Understanding Glaucoma

Glaucoma refers to several eye conditions that damage the optic nerve, the vital link between the eye and the brain. The optic nerve transmits visual information from the retina to the brain, enabling us to see. An increase of pressure inside the eye, or intraocular pressure, can cause optic nerve damage and affect vision.

Typically, a buildup of fluid is the cause of increased eye pressure. In a healthy eye, the fluid in the eye drains out as needed through an angle where the cornea and iris meet. But when the eye produces too much liquid or doesn't drain properly, eye pressure builds and glaucoma develops. When left untreated, glaucoma can result in vision loss and, eventually, blindness.

Types of Glaucoma in Seniors

There are several forms of glaucoma, but 2 types are most commonly diagnosed: primary open-angle glaucoma (POAG) and angle-closure glaucoma.

  1. Primary Open-Angle Glaucoma (POAG): This is the most common type of glaucoma, accounting for 90% of all cases. In POAG, the drainage angle of the eye remains open, but the eye's drainage system becomes less efficient in draining fluid inside the eye. This leads to a gradual increase in eye pressure over time.
  2. Angle-Closure Glaucoma: This type of glaucoma occurs when the drainage angle of the eye becomes blocked, preventing the normal outflow of fluid inside the eye. This can happen suddenly or gradually, and it often presents with more noticeable symptoms than POAG.

Risk Factors for Glaucoma

Understanding the risk factors for high eye pressure is crucial for seniors and their families. While anyone can develop glaucoma, certain factors increase the likelihood of its occurrence:

  • Age: The risk of developing glaucoma increases with age, particularly after the age of 60. About 5% of adults over age 65 develop glaucoma.
  • Family History: If there's a family history of glaucoma, individuals are at a higher risk.
  • Ethnicity: People of African, Hispanic, and Asian descent are at an increased risk.
  • Medical Conditions: Conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension can elevate the risk of glaucoma.
  • Eye Trauma or Surgery: Past eye injuries or surgeries can increase the risk of glaucoma.
  • Medication: Some medications, like steroids, can put you at a higher risk of developing high eye pressure.
  • Eye Anatomy: If your cornea is thin at the center, you could more easily develop glaucoma. Additionally, if you have a narrow drainage angle, the eye may not be able to drain efficiently.

Symptoms & Detection

One of the challenges with glaucoma is that it often progresses without noticeable symptoms until significant damage has occurred. In fact, it is estimated that half of all people with glaucoma have not been diagnosed yet. Regular eye check-ups are essential for early detection.

However, people may notice these glaucoma symptoms as the eye condition worsens:

  • Tunnel Vision: Individuals with glaucoma may experience a slow and gradual loss of peripheral vision.
  • Blurred Vision: Vision may become hazy or blurred, affecting the ability to see clearly. Eventually, glaucoma can result in blindness.
  • Halos Around Lights: Some adults may notice halos around lights, particularly in low-light conditions.
  • Severe Eye Pain and Headaches: This is a more common symptom for acute angle-closure glaucoma. It requires immediate medical attention by an eye doctor.

Implications for Seniors

Poor vision can have serious implications for seniors. Firstly, seniors with vision impairment are at a higher risk of falling. It can be harder to judge depths and notice items on the floor. And as we get older, the risk of serious accident as a result of a fall increases.

Poor vision can also lead to a decreased ability to perform activities of daily living. These activities include going to the bathroom, preparing food, getting dressed, and more. Not being able to see clearly can make even simple tasks extremely difficult.

Finally, poor vision loss can lead to depression. As seniors lose independence as a result of glaucoma, they can become isolated and their mental health can take a toll. That's why it's so important to prevent glaucoma when possible and actively manage the condition after a diagnosis.

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Prevention & Management

While glaucoma cannot be completely prevented, there are measures seniors and their families can take to reduce the risk and manage the condition effectively:

  • Regular Eye Exams: Annual eye check-ups are crucial for early detection and timely intervention.
  • Know Your Family History: Being aware of any family history of glaucoma allows for proactive monitoring and preventive measures.
  • Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle: Eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, and manage underlying health conditions.
  • Adhere to Medication: Use prescribed eye drops or medications to manage eye pressure as directed by your eye doctor.
  • Protect Your Eyes: Wearing protective eyewear during activities that pose a risk of eye injury is important.
  • Quit Smoking: Smoking is linked to an increased risk of glaucoma. Quitting can be beneficial for eye health and overall health.
  • Surgery: In some cases of angle-closure glaucoma, doctors may recommend surgery to allow the eye to drain fluid properly.

Supporting Seniors with Glaucoma

A glaucoma diagnosis can be overwhelming for seniors and their families. It can be scary to experience vision loss and the associated loss of independence that may come with it. Providing emotional support and practical assistance is crucial in helping seniors manage the condition.

  • Encourage regular check-ups and provide transportation to appointments as needed.
  • Assist with medication management
  • Create a Safe Environment to help your loved one avoid vision-related falls
  • Know the symptoms of glaucoma to seek timely medical attention if needed

Understanding glaucoma is the first step towards preserving the precious gift of sight for seniors. By being proactive in preventive measures, staying informed about the risk factors, and offering the necessary support, seniors and their families can navigate the challenges posed by glaucoma. If your loved one suffers from vision loss and requires some help at home, reach out to your local Caring caregivers.

Tags: Senior Health, Eye Health