Senior Safety & Health

Glaucoma Guide For Seniors

Glaucoma - Closeup Of An Old Man Wearing Glasses

Glaucoma And Older Adults

Did you know that glaucoma causes 10% of blindness in the US? 

Or that ¾ of people who become legally blind due to glaucoma are seniors?

Glaucoma affects about 3 million people in the US. It can happen to anyone at any age.

However, seniors are the most likely to be affected.

Not just that, but according to the Glaucoma Research Foundation, 50% of cases are undiagnosed.

It’s important to know that a diagnosis doesn’t mean imminent blindness. There are many ways to treat glaucoma.

It’s possible to keep your vision and your quality of life if you are proactive about frequent checkups and exams.

What Is Glaucoma?

Glaucoma is an overarching term for a collection of conditions that happen when the optic nerve is damaged, impacting the degree of vision. 

The optic nerve, located in the rear of the eyeball, is the primary facilitator for sending information from the eye to the brain.

Glaucoma causes excess pressure in the eye, harming the optic nerve and stopping it from processing information correctly.

How the pressure grows and how much there is in the eye determines which type of glaucoma is present. Generally, 90% of patients develop open-angle glaucoma, which will be used interchangeably with glaucoma in this article. 

Causes Of Glaucoma

As mentioned earlier, damage to the optic nerve induced by excess pressure is one of the leading causes of this disease. 

This swelling is caused by the fluid that usually moves within the eye can’t leave and make room for new fluid. 

When this happens, it causes a buildup of fluid, which can lead to harmful pressure within the eye.

The National Eye Institute explains how excessive fluid leads to optic nerve damage:

  • The fluid flows through the anterior chamber, located near the front of the eye. The fluid acts like a natural, built-in self-cleaning service for different parts of the eye.
  • Once the fluid exits the anterior chamber, it crosses the angle where the cornea and iris meet. This angle is a mesh-like membrane, also situated in the front of the eye. Since the fluid passes through this membrane, it is considered “open.”
  • However, if the flow of the fluid slows and stops moving through the membrane at its earlier pace, it causes the fluid to build, resulting in pressure.
  • Occasionally, eyes make too much of this fluid, and it can’t pass through fast enough. Sometimes the membrane gradually becomes blocked over time. Both result in excess pressure that creates glaucoma.

Glaucoma Signs & Symptoms

Of course, the type of disease you have will affect which symptoms you experience. 

For angle-closure glaucoma, the signs can be challenging to notice because of the disease’s slow progression.

It can take several years for the pressure to build and become severe enough that glaucoma develops.

Unfortunately, by the time the worst symptoms arise, the disease has already had time to progress and possibly cause harm.

During this time, you or your loved one must get help right away before blindness sets in.

However, with regular eye examines, it may be possible to catch some of the irreversible symptoms before anything worse happens.

Here are some of the signs of late-stage glaucoma:

  • Blind spots in your peripheral vision. Your side vision is often the first part of your sight that glaucoma affects. When blind spots and eventual absence of peripheral vision happens, it can cause tunnel vision.
  • Tunnel vision. Without the ability to see to the side, above, or below, it feels like looking through a narrow tube. 
  • Blindness. As the disease progresses, tunnel vision will devolve into blindness.

Types Of Glaucoma & Symptoms

While 90% of cases are due to open-angle glaucoma, there are other forms that older adults should know. 

Some types can develop more rapidly, or even happen under unusual circumstances (e.g., congenital glaucoma).

Angle-closure and normal-tension glaucoma make up the other 10% of cases of those diagnosed with this disease.

Angle-Closure Glaucoma

The membrane (or angle) where the iris and cornea come together can sometimes be blocked entirely. 

The fluid is unable to flow through, resulting in accumulation that causes instant, severe pressure.

It can be the result of an inflamed iris or other exterior eye damage, or it’s a swiftly-emerging condition.

Vision loss can happen quickly with this form, so you should immediately seek treatment.

Look for these symptoms of angle-closure glaucoma:

  • Nausea or queasiness
  • Seeing rainbows around lights at nighttime
  • Headaches
  • Blurry vision
  • Tender eyes 

Treatment for this type of glaucoma involves surgically removing the blockage to allow the fluid to drain.

This process also involves repairing the iris so that fluid movement can resume moving normally again.

Normal-Tension Glaucoma

Although glaucoma occurs from unusually high amounts of pressure in the eye, optical nerve damage can still occur even with normal pressure.

This type is unusual because often, patients experience no signs or symptoms until it is too late.

Regular exams and checkups are crucial for seniors to maintain their vision and catch this disease before it causes irreversible damage.

If you do develop normal-tension glaucoma, treatment involves the same surgical procedure as angle-closure glaucoma. 

Additionally, eye drops and other medications can help keep eye pressure at a minimum.

Why Glaucoma Happens

Little is known about normal-tension glaucoma, and doctors still don’t understand why this disease develops under normal pressure. 

Some researches believe that highly sensitive optic nerves could put patients more at risk.

While there is still a lot to learn about normal-tension glaucoma, there are several commonalities, which include:

  • More frequently occurs in women than men.
  • More common in those of Japanese descent.
  • Typically found in those aged 60 and older.
  • 25% of open-angle glaucoma patients are more likely also to develop normal-tension glaucoma. 
  • Those with a history of heart disease and irregular heartbeats.

Additionally, having a history of migraines, Alzheimer’s, thyroid problems, or other eye conditions can contribute to this form of glaucoma.

Glaucoma & Other Health Problems

Blindness may be the main concern for at-risk individuals, but there are other detrimental effects caused by glaucoma.

The American Foundation for the Blind found other adverse health effects that can originate from blindness or varying degrees of vision loss, such as:

  • Greater risk for falls. Decreased vision can make seniors more likely to miss a step or trip over something in the way. Older adults take longer to recover and are more susceptible to experience worse injuries. The consequences of falling become direr as you age.
  • Depression. Falling and dealing with recovery can be a significant contributor to depression in the elderly. Plus, 57% percent of elders with reduced or impaired sight are more likely to experience some degree of depression.
  • Ability to perform routine tasks. Vision loss can make it challenging to carry out everyday tasks. Whether it’s bathing, cooking, dressing, and of course, driving, decreased vision has its toll. When seniors begin struggling, it may be time to consider a caregiver.

Risk Factors

Glaucoma can happen at any stage of life, not just seniors. However, certain risk factors can make some more likely than others to develop this disease. 

  • Age. Glaucoma is more likely to occur in those aged 60 and older because of their susceptibility to possible eye damage and other health risks.
  • Race. African-Americans and Latinos are more likely to develop glaucoma, though researches don’t know why. It is also more likely to happen earlier in life than in other races.
  • Earlier eye injury. Injury or trauma to the eye that happened years prior can still cause harmful effects. 
  • The thickness of the cornea. In an early 2000s study, researchers discovered that people with a thicker cornea are six times as likely to develop glaucoma.
  • Diabetes and other heart issues. Blood pressure and diabetes can influence your probability of developing glaucoma. Managing blood pressure may help lower pressure inside of the eye and reduce the risk of this disease.
  • Genetics. Family history can increase the chance of developing this disease later in life. 

Other risk factors include nearsightedness and prolonged exposure to cortisone.

Testing

Your doctor can perform several tests to check your eye health and make sure everything is normal. These tests include:

  • Tonometry: This test measures pressure levels within the eye. It is often conducted as a routine part of every doctor’s appointment. First, eye drops are used to numb the eye. Next, a machine blows a little air into the eye that gauges its level of pressure.
  • Gonioscopy. This method tests the distance between the angle where the cornea and iris meet. This test frequently takes place after experiencing some of the signs of the disease and determines which form you may have.
  • Ophthalmoscopy. When you have normal pressure but are at risk, your doctor may use this test. By dilating your pupils and using a magnifying tool, they can examine the optic nerve and other parts in the back of the eye.

Treatment Options

Since open-angle glaucoma occurs gradually, it’s possible to catch it early and begin treatment to stop further damage.

Of course, you will only catch it if you visit the eye doctor regularly.

The focus of open-angle and normal-tension glaucoma treatment plans is reducing pressure inside of the eye. 

With closed-angle glaucoma, surgery is necessary and often needs carrying out right away.

Here are some of the treatment options for glaucoma:

  • Medicated eye drops. The benefits of eye drops are that they are affordable and only need to be used once a day. However, they do have side effects that include dizziness, asthma attacks, nausea, fatigue, and cardiovascular disease. Despite that, eye drops are one of the most effective ways to lower eye pressure.
  • Medication. Pills are prescribed to bolster the effectiveness of eye drops. But it often takes several months to work. It is best to use them in conjunction with eye drops, which offer immediate relief.
  • Medical Marijuana.  Medically prescribed marijuana is an effective treatment for glaucoma for decades. However, it generally only lowers pressure for up to four hours at a time, and it’s necessary to have 24/7 relief to alleviate symptoms. Often, it is prescribed with eye drops and is good to use for faster relief when the eye drops wear off, or you experience their side effects.

Never use alternative medicines and therapies for treating glaucoma, as they will only make things worse.

Surgery

Aside from patients with closed-angle glaucoma, surgery is the last option when eye drops, medication, and other measures don’t help. 

There are two types of surgery to open the angle between the cornea and iris. 

  • Laser surgery. This non-obtrusive method is fast and pain-free. It can easily unblock the membrane and clear any blockage preventing the normal flow of eye fluid. However, it does have some long-term effects, which are essential to discuss with your doctor. 
  • Traditional surgery. Traditional surgery involves your doctor physically opening a new place for fluid to drain or installing something that will remove more fluid. This method, while invasive, is highly useful and works long after the surgery.

While surgery can be an advantageous treatment option, it can pose some liability for older adults. Patients must be appropriately informed about the risks.

Glaucoma Prevention For Older Adults

The best way that seniors can prevent glaucoma from worsening is with routine eye exams.

Seniors should aim for once-a-year doctor’s visits. If you have a higher risk of developing this disease, consider going twice.

Additionally, eating right and staying active can do a lot for eye health since it lowers the chance for heart disease.

Managing Vision Loss & Blindness 

Sadly, glaucoma’s effects on vision are irreversible. But, there are options for those with impaired vision or even blindness.

Low vision rehabilitation is one way for seniors to retain their quality of life, even with reduced vision.

Through low vision rehab programs, patients can learn new training and technology that will help them manage life with their remaining sight. 

Some local organizations or agencies provide information about low vision counseling, training, support groups, or other services. 

Call the National Senior Information Helpline at 1-800-766-1116 to begin the search for services in your area.

MeetCaregivers Can Help

Any degree of vision loss is devastating. It can lead to feelings of helplessness, loss of independence, depression, and more.

However, it’s possible to continue living a healthy life. Hiring a caregiver can help maintain quality of life and manage well-being.

Our qualified caregivers can help with transportation, dressing, cooking, and more.

Don’t let glaucoma and vision loss prevent you from living your best life. Let MeetCaregivers help.

Call us at (888) 541-1136 or for general inquiries, message us at info@meetcaregivers.com.

Be sure to check the blog for resources and tips for happy, healthy senior living.