Glaucoma in Elderly Adults: Everything You Need To Know

There are many forms of glaucoma, but they all have one thing in common. Damage to the ocular nerve can lead to a permanent loss of vision. Little can threaten a person’s independence of quality of life as much as a loss of sight. And according to the World Health Organization, glaucoma is now the second leading cause of blindness around the world.

As we age, our eyes undergo natural deterioration. That can make distinguishing between the natural effects of aging and impairments caused by disease quite difficult. But by learning more about preventing, treating, or otherwise living with glaucoma, it may be possible to help loved ones to preserve their precious sight.

Glaucoma Risk Factors — What Causes Glaucoma in Elderly Adults

Glaucoma isn’t a single disease; it actually includes a range of conditions where the optical nerve becomes damaged. Because there are several different types of glaucoma, there are also several different risk factors. But in nearly all cases, the leading risk factor is age. The National Institutes of Health estimates that for people over the age of 65, about one in fifty suffer from glaucoma. And that number nearly quadruples by age 80.

Additionally, some forms of glaucoma are hereditary. For example, the Glaucoma Research Foundation estimates that having a family history of glaucoma may increase your risk by as much as nine-fold. Hispanics, Asians, and people of African descent are also at much greater risk of suffering from the most common type of glaucoma.

Several medical conditions can also contribute to a person’s risk, including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, hypothyroidism, and nearsightedness. Those with a medical history that includes retinal detachment or tumors of the eye are also at increased risk.

What Does Glaucoma Feel Like — Signs and Symptoms of Glaucoma in Elderly Patients

Because there are several different types of glaucoma, the signs and symptoms of glaucoma in the elderly can vary widely. But the two most common forms include angle-closure glaucoma and primary open-angle glaucoma.

Open-angle glaucoma can be difficult to detect because it often provides no warning signs. It’s quite common for people to not a gradual loss of peripheral vision, and this form can be even more difficult to detect because it usually affects both eyes simultaneously. That’s why many people do not seek help until peripheral vision has been permanently lost, which is why regular eye exams are so critical.

Though somewhat less common, angle-closure glaucoma does usually provide early warning signs. That includes head and eye pain, nausea, vomiting, sudden vision loss, and severely blurred vision. It may also only afflict one single eye at a time. Some additional early warning signs of glaucoma include:

  • Severe light sensitivity
  • Double vision
  • Swollen eyelids
  • Itching or burning in the eyes
  • Seeing ghost-like images
  • Changes in color near the iris
  • Difficulty adjusting eyes to dark places

There are also several signs of glaucoma that demand immediate medical attention. If a person begins to experience flashes of light, black spots, a rainbow effect around light sources, blurred vision in one eye, or a sudden loss of vision, they should visit the emergency room immediately.

Treatment for Glaucoma in the Elderly

Although there is no cure for glaucoma, treatment can help maintain a person’s vision for years to come. Choosing the right glaucoma treatments for the elderly will depend on a person’s individual circumstances, and can depend on the form of glaucoma being treated.

Some of the most conservative treatments include medicated eye drops or oral medications can be used to help decrease pressure within the eye. However, sometimes medications do not lower eye pressure far enough, or may lead to significant side effects or complications. Which is why there are also a variety of surgical procedures that can help treat glaucoma.

For example, with open-angle glaucoma, laser treatments can be used to blast open clogged drainage canals. Another option is filtering surgery, which removes a small part of the trabecular meshwork within the eye to allow for better drainage. Surgeons may also insert drainage implants.

These kinds of treatments have an excellent rate of success, and are usually able to help prevent deterioration for years at a time.

Glaucoma and Diabetes

Unfortunately, people with diabetes are at greater risk of developing a variety of additional health problems. For instance, diabetes can contribute to cataracts and diabetic retinopathy. Though the association between diabetes and glaucoma has been controversial among scholars until as recently as 2015, there’s increasingly strong evidence that the two are connected.

The precise mechanisms by which glaucoma and diabetes are related is not fully understood. But it’s been estimated that people with diabetes are nearly twice as likely to develop glaucoma. Informing loved ones with diabetes about their increased risks, and how to manage them, can be an essential step to helping preserve their sight.

Glaucoma Prevention

Like with so many other kinds of disease, a healthy lifestyle can go a long way towards preventing glaucoma. Some of the many things you can do include:

  • Maintaining healthy blood pressure and weight can reduce pressure within the eye and reduce insulin resistance, lowering your risk on multiple fronts.
  • Evidence suggests that most forms of exercise can reduce your risk of glaucoma.
  • Even eating leafy greens like kale and spinach can reduce your risk because they contain nitrates, which can help reduce blood pressure.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce ocular pressure. You can find them in places like tuna, salmon, sardines, or relatively inexpensive fish oil supplements.
  • Eye injuries can lead to normal-tension glaucoma. You can reduce your risk by making prudent use of eye protection when necessary. (e.g. when playing badminton.)

And statistically speaking, the most important element of glaucoma prevention is getting a regular eye exam. That’s because for the most common type of glaucoma, there are often no symptoms to serve as a warning. Experts recommend an annual eye exam for everyone age 60 or older, and a bi-annual exam may be recommended for people in their 80’s.

Living with Glaucoma

Being diagnosed with glaucoma can lead a person to feel anxiety, depression, and a sense of helplessness. Changes in vision can have a big impact on a person’s life, including their ability to read, drive, or work. It can increase their risk of suffering from a fall, and it can make cooking and other forms of self-care more difficult.

There are also ways of increasing the pressure inside of the eye, which should be avoided. That includes several common exercises, like crunches, squats, and inverted sit-ups. Generally speaking, any exercise that places the head in a downward position could be worth avoiding. That includes relatively common yoga poses, like downward-facing dog or plow pose.

It should be clear that a loss of vision can have a big impact on a person’s life. Adapting to those kinds of changes can take time. But with the right treatment and support, just about anyone can learn to live with glaucoma. And with that support, most people can continue to preserve their vision for years to come.