It’s the leading cause of irreversible blindness worldwide and yet half of Australians living with glaucoma don’t realise they have it.
For the 300,000 Australians that have glaucoma, 150,000 of them are unknowingly living with this disease mainly because they have not had a simple eye check by an eye health provider such as an optometrist or ophthalmologist.
“If it isn’t diagnosed before it takes their sight, they may be left with irreversible blindness,” says Geoff Pollard, National Executive Officer of Glaucoma Australia.
Glaucoma is a progressive eye disease that damages the optic nerve due to high pressure inside the eye. In its early stages glaucoma can be unnoticeable with little to no symptoms, however, if left untreated there is an increased risk in vision loss making it critical to detect the problem as early as possible.
Anne Torrisi was fortunate to have her glaucoma detected in its early stages
Living with glaucoma
Anne Torrisi, now 51, is one of the 74 per cent of cases with primary open-angle glaucoma that often show no warning signs. Before her diagnosis, Torrisi wore glasses for her short-sightedness. Fortunately, this meant she had yearly check-ups, which is how her ophthalmologist picked up the eye disease when she was 30.
“When I was first diagnosed I had a day at Sydney Eye Hospital and they did a whole lot of tests to find out how much damage was done to the optic nerve. I trialled a few different drops until I was on the right eye drop that helped and I had three to four monthly check-ups,” says Torrisi.
However, despite her family history of eye issues (her aunt and uncle in particular suffered from extremely poor vision their entire lives), the idea of being diagnosed with glaucoma never occurred to her.
“It never crossed my mind… But we’ve had bad eyesight in our family so it is something that we’ve always checked.”
The risk of developing glaucoma increases slightly with each year of age, particularly among people aged 80 years and older, who are 17 times more likely of developing the disease than those who are under 50. Additionally, having a family history of the condition puts glaucoma prevalence in a person's parent, sibling, or child ten-folds higher1.
It was only shortly after Torrisi’s diagnosis that her mother, now 81, was also diagnosed with the condition.
“Glaucoma is hereditary, so if your parents or grandparents were diagnosed, your chances of having glaucoma are a lot higher. The plus side is that if glaucoma is detected early, it can be treated and your sight can be saved,” says Specsavers Director of Optometry Peter Larsen.
While the exact cause of glaucoma is not known there are many ways to manage the condition. Torrisi is required to take daily eye drops but has also had to undergo four operations. “I’ve had two [surgeries] in both eyes. So I’ve had four all up. The first two were lens replacement and in the next two, they removed a membrane.”
Post-surgery, Torrisi’s vision improved slightly, but found that it was difficult for her to see at night especially with her extreme short-sightedness.
She feels her glaucoma has not affected her everyday activities and it has been quite easy for her to manage, especially since she was diagnosed early. “As long as I control [my condition] and have my check-ups and my drops, it seems to be stable,” she says.
Glaucoma develops slowly and often without any symptoms
Eye tests crucial to fighting blindness
According to the latest research from Specsavers2, more than six million Australians over the age of 35 don’t have regular eye tests, yet a simple check-up can make the degenerative effects of glaucoma largely preventable or help to delay the progression of the disease.
Larsen of Specsavers says regular eye tests every two years are crucial to ensure the eye health of all Australians. “It’s important to educate about the dangers of glaucoma and urge Australians to have their eyes tested regularly, not just to prevent loss of vision in the future’s elderly, but also to build good health habits that will last across generations,” he says.
Latest eye testing technologies, such as Digital Retinal Photography – which take photos of the back of the eye – has allowed eye specialists to screen better for abnormalities, with the early detection of diseases including diabetes, macular degeneration and glaucoma.
Pollard from Glaucoma Australia stresses the importance of regular testing for at-risk Australians: “National guidelines encourage every Australian over the age of 50 to get a comprehensive eye exam to test for the early signs of glaucoma which will assist in unearthing the 150,000 Australians currently unaware that they are living with the disease.”
You can visit your local optometrist to book an eye test, or for more information and support visit glaucoma.org.au.
1 National Health and Medical Research Council. NHMRC Guidelines for the screening, prognosis, diagnosis, management and prevention of Glaucoma 2010.
2 Independent research by Galaxy, commissioned by Specsavers in February 2017.