The ‘silent thief of sight’ blinding thousands of Australians

Glaucoma affects an estimated 300,000 Australians, slowly robbing them of their sight – and half of them don’t know it yet.

Glaucoma is a condition that damages the eye’s optic nerve, which transmits visual information to the brain. This can lead to vision loss and blindness.

It’s dubbed the “silent” thief of sight”, because the early stages are often painless and symptoms are so subtle that many people may not initially notice changes to their vision.

“As the nerve starts getting damaged you start losing peripheral vision,” Glaucoma Australia chief executive Annie Gibbins says. “You might lose more than 40 per cent of your eye sight before you start to notice.”

Who’s at risk?

While anyone can develop glaucoma, the incidence increases with age. One in 10,000 babies are born with glaucoma and by 40, about one in 200 have it. This rises to one in eight people at age 80.

Those with a family history of glaucoma are 10 times more likely to have glaucoma than people without a hereditary link.

It’s suggested people with no hereditary link to glaucoma should get their eyes tested from age 50 with regular updates every two years, while people with a family history of glaucoma should start from age 40.

How to lower your risk of vision loss

Vision loss as a result of glaucoma is irreversible – but it is preventable. If detected in its early stages it can usually be treated with simple eye drops, or in rarer cases, surgery.

This is why the focus of 2018’s World Glaucoma Week is on encouraging Australians to get their eyes tested.

“If you had glaucoma in the early stages you wouldn’t be experiencing symptoms, you wouldn’t have pain, but you would be experiencing damage, says Ms Gibbins. “If we had more early diagnosis we would minimise sight loss.”

The only way to know if you have glaucoma is by getting a comprehensive eye examination from an optometrist.

It’s Medicare-funded, painless, non-invasive and takes 20 to 30 minutes. If a risk factor is detected, you’ll be referred to an ophthalmologist for further testing.

Recent studies show healthy lifestyle choices may help reduce risk of glaucoma.

One study found a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids could lower glaucoma risk, while another showed exercise also minimised risk of developing the disease.