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Last updated on April 18, 2014 at 12:39 EDT

NIH Statement On Glaucoma Awareness Month, January 2012

January 5, 2012

Glaucoma is a major cause of vision loss in the United States, affecting about 2.2 million Americans. The National Eye Institute (NEI) leads research toward better prevention, detection, and treatment of this often silent but devastating disease. During Glaucoma Awareness Month, NEI highlights research advances, showcases education and awareness efforts, and reminds Americans that early detection and treatment is the best way to prevent vision loss. NEI advises all Americans at risk of glaucoma to get a comprehensive dilated eye exam every one to two years.

Glaucoma is a group of diseases that damages the optic nerve, the bundle of nerve cells that relays visual information from the eye to the brain. In the most common form of glaucoma, called primary open angle glaucoma, nerve damage results from an increase in intraocular pressure – the pressure inside the eye. Increased intraocular pressure occurs when the fluid that circulates in and out of the front part of the eye drains too slowly.

Glaucoma is usually painless, initially affects peripheral vision, and progresses slowly, which helps explain why half of all people with glaucoma are unaware they have it. Without adequate treatment, glaucoma eventually affects central vision and progresses to blindness. Vision loss from glaucoma is irreversible.

Glaucoma is a complex disease and progress toward preventing or reversing the condition has been slow; however, NEI’s multipronged approach to glaucoma research is making great strides. Epidemiological studies funded by NEI have identified populations at higher risk of glaucoma, including African-Americans ages 40 and older; everyone age 60 and older, especially Mexican Americans; and people with a family history of the disease.

The NEI-led Ocular Hypertension Treatment Study (OHTS) and the Advanced Glaucoma Intervention Study (AGIS) helped refine strategies for reducing glaucoma-related vision loss. The OHTS established that medicated eye drops to reduce intraocular pressure are effective at delaying or preventing disease among people identified to be at high risk of glaucoma. The AGIS found that specific traits such as race/ethnicity can help predict which type of surgical treatment is more likely to achieve better visual results.

NEI continues to fund research to advance techniques such as confocal laser scanning ophthalmoscopy and optical coherence tomography, which are used to image the retina and optic nerve. Studies such as the Diagnostic Innovations in Glaucoma Study and the Advanced Imaging for Glaucoma Study are using these techniques to develop better tools to diagnose and manage glaucoma.

NEI researchers are devising new techniques to study glaucoma disease mechanisms, such as new mouse models that simulate glaucoma. Such models enable scientists to study how increased eye pressure causes optic nerve cell death.

Some people have normal intraocular pressure despite having glaucoma. A major focus of NEI glaucoma research is the development of neuroprotective treatment strategies. NEI scientists are pursuing gene therapy, stem cells, and vaccines as potential therapies to protect precious optic nerve cells. Such therapies may apply to multiple visual neuropathies and, importantly, glaucoma that does not respond to eye pressure-lowering treatments.

The NEI National Eye Health Education Program (NEHEP) provides a variety of educational resources, in English and Spanish, as part of its broad eye health outreach effort. New this year is the Keep Vision in Your Future Glaucoma Toolkit, designed for health professionals and community organizations to raise awareness about the importance of comprehensive dilated eye exams for early detection of glaucoma.

According to an NEI survey, more than 90 percent of Americans have heard of glaucoma. However, only 8 percent are aware glaucoma has no early symptoms. During Glaucoma Awareness Month, NEHEP is targeting people at higher risk of glaucoma by working with media outlets to disseminate glaucoma information.

Help spread the word this January. Early detection and treatment is the best way to prevent vision loss from glaucoma. Encourage those at risk to get a comprehensive dilated eye exam.

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