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January 31, 2006 > January is National Eye Care Month

January is National Eye Care Month

Glaucoma, Cataracts are Major Cause of Vision Problems in Aging Adults

Eyesight is something many of us take for granted. But as we start to age, our eyes become more susceptible to diseases like glaucoma and cataracts. Take steps to prevent vision loss during National Eye Care Month.

"It's important for seniors over the age of 65 and those at high risk to get regular eye exams," said Dr. Fang Tan, a Washington Hospital ophthalmologist. "Early diagnosis and treatment can prevent and reduce vision loss."

Cataracts are a leading cause of blindness in older adults. More than 20 million Americans ages 40 and older have cataracts, according to Prevent Blindness America. By the time they are 80, half of all Americans have cataracts.

A cataract is a clouding of the eye's lens. Normally, the lens is clear and focuses light onto the retina at the back of the eye, which sends images to the brain. Cataracts block light needed for sight. Vision may become blurry or dim because light can't properly pass through the lens to the retina.

The exact cause of cataracts is unknown. While it seems to be part of getting older, there are risk factors that may play a role, including intense heat or long-term exposure to UV rays from the sun, inflammation in the eye, hereditary influences, events before birth like German measles in the mother, long-term steroid use, eye injuries, eye diseases, other diseases such as diabetes, and smoking.

"People with diabetes are at greater risk for cataracts and glaucoma," Tan said.

Cataracts generally do not cause pain, redness or tears. Changes in vision usually signal the start of a cataract, including blurred vision, double vision, or ghost images. Lights may seem too dim for reading and changing eyeglass prescriptions doesn't help. Problems seeing become more noticeable as cataracts develop.

While surgery is the only treatment, it is effective in more than 95 percent of cases. Surgery is recommended when vision loss starts to affect day-to-day life.

During surgery, the clouded lens is removed. Most patients receive an artificial lens, called an intraocular lens implant.

"Cataracts are curable with surgery," Tan said. "Glaucoma is not curable, but it is treatable if found early."

Glaucoma Damages Optic Nerve
Glaucoma is the term for a group of diseases that can destroy the optic nerve, which sends information from your eye to your brain. When the optic nerve becomes damaged, you begin to lose patches of vision.

There are no symptoms other than loss of vision, which occurs so gradually it can go undetected. The first sign is usually the loss of peripheral vision. More than 2.2 million Americans ages 40 and older have open angle glaucoma and at least half don't even know they have it, according to Prevent Blindness America.

African Americans are four times more likely to develop glaucoma. Other risk factors include age, family history, diabetes and other diseases, long-term steroid use, and previous eye injuries, eye diseases and eye surgery.

Doctors don't know exactly how glaucoma damages the optic nerve. For many people, increased eye pressure seems to play an important role.

The eyes produce a watery fluid that goes into the eye and drains out. With open angle glaucoma, the most common form, the fluid drains too slowly and pressure inside the eye builds up. While usually the result of an aging drainage system, younger people can also get this type of glaucoma.

Normal tension glaucoma occurs in people who are unusually sensitive to normal levels of pressure. Reduced blood supply to the optic nerve may also play a role.

Acute angle closure glaucoma affects less than 10 percent of Caucasians and African Americans, but for those of Asian and Native American descent, the risk is as high as the more common open angle glaucoma. This type of glaucoma causes a sudden rise in eye pressure, requiring immediate emergency medical care.

While there is no cure for glaucoma, early treatment can prevent blindness in most cases. The disease can be treated with medications, often eye drops, and surgery.

For more information about eye care, including cataracts and glaucoma, visit

Washington Township Health Care District has been committed to serving District residents since it was formed in 1948. For more information about Washington Hospital and its programs and services, visit

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