Actress and comedian Roseanne Barr announced last month that she is going blind. The cause? Two common eye conditions: glaucoma and macular degeneration.
These two eye conditions are the top two leading causes of irreversible blindness in the world, though they do not always occur together, as in Barr’s case. Her father suffered from eye health problems including macular degeneration, which is often—though not always—genetic.
Macular degeneration can also be the result of lifestyle habits, such as poor diet, lack of exercise and obesity. There are two types of this eye disease: dry and wet. Dry macular degeneration, which affects central vision, accounts for about 80 percent of all cases of macular degeneration.
Wet macular degeneration is more advanced than dry macular degeneration and occurs when abnormal blood vessels begin to leak blood or fluid into the macula. Macular degeneration is more difficult to treat when it reaches this stage.
Risk Factors for Macular Degeneration
There are many risk factors that may lead to macular degeneration, including:
- Age: Macular degeneration typically affects adults over age 55.
- Smoking: Smoking increases risk of macular degeneration by as much as five times.
- Family history: As in Barr’s case, anyone with a family history of the eye disease—particularly in his or her immediate family—is more likely to be affected.
- Gender: Macular degeneration affects more females than males.
- Race: Caucasians are more likely to be affected by age-related macular degeneration than any other race.
- Obesity: Anyone with a BMI of 30 or greater is two-and-a-half times more likely to be affected by the disease.
- Poor diet and physical inactivity: A diet that is high in fat, cholesterol and sugar and/or low in nutrients and antioxidants may increase one’s risk of developing the disease.
Likewise, those who do not exercise regularly may also be at a higher risk of age-related macular degeneration.
- Prolonged sun exposure: The sun’s UV rays can damage retinal tissue, leading to macular degeneration.
Preventing Macular Degeneration
Here are some tips to lower your risk of developing macular degeneration:
- Don’t smoke.
- Eat lots of dark, leafy green veggies like spinach.
- Exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight.
- Eat fruits and nuts daily.
- Manage blood pressure and cholesterol.
- Protect your eyes from the sun with sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB light.
- Have regular comprehensive eye exams.
Also influenced by genetics, glaucoma is characterized by increased pressure in the optic nerve. If the optic nerve is damaged, there is no way to reverse that damage and blindness can occur. If caught early, glaucoma can be managed with prescription medication.
Risk Factors for Glaucoma
Glaucoma can destroy vision before any symptoms are present, so it’s important to know these risk factors for the disease:
- Age: If you’re older than 60, you are at a higher risk of developing glaucoma, though African-Americans may be at a risk of developing the eye disease at an earlier age.
- Ethnic background: Although anyone of any ethnic background can develop glaucoma, African-Americans over age 40 are at a much higher risk than Caucasians.
- Family history: If you have a family history of the disease, you have a greater risk of developing glaucoma than someone with no family history.
- Medical conditions: Glaucoma is an eye condition that may be influenced by other medical conditions including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and hypothyroidism.
- Eye injuries: Severe eye injuries can cause increased pressure in the eye, leading to glaucoma. The same is true of eye tumors, retinal detachment, eye inflammation and lens discoloration.
- Refractive errors: People who are nearsighted or farsighted may be at a higher risk of glaucoma.
Although glaucoma is not always preventable, there are several things you can do to lower your risk, including:
- Treating any diagnosed elevated eye pressure with eye drops.
- Eating a healthy diet helps to control blood pressure and reduce risk of other medical conditions that may cause glaucoma.
- Wearing eye protection. If you’re using power tools or playing racket sports like racquetball, always wear eye protection.
Both macular degeneration and glaucoma can creep in and steal one’s vision before symptoms are noticed. This is why it is critical to stay on top of routine eye exams. The earlier macular degeneration or glaucoma is diagnosed and treated, the greater one’s chances of maintaining his or her vision.