It’s a sad fact that as you age, there are more and more health issues to be aware of. Looking after your sight is vital and is an important way to make sure you stay independent.

Here’s what you need to know about two serious eye conditions – glaucoma and macular degeneration.

Glaucoma is a serious eye condition that can lead to irreversible blindness if left untreated. However, up to 50 per cent of people with the disease don’t know they have it because it presents with no symptoms.

Clinical Associate Professor Andrew White is one of the world’s top 100 glaucoma specialists. He treats patients at Westmead Hospital and PersonalEyes eye clinics in Sydney as well as undertaking leading glaucoma research at the University of Sydney.

Professor White says anyone over aged over 45 needs to see their optometrist twice a year for an eye test, which includes a check of the optic nerves. “Glaucoma is an asymptomatic disease, meaning you would be unaware you had it unless you had regular eye checks,” he says.

“More than 300,000 Australians [have glaucoma] and it is thought that up to 50 per cent of glaucoma sufferers are undiagnosed,” he says. “If you have a family history of glaucoma, it’s advisable to begin bi-annual testing in your 30s as you are at a much higher risk.”

Professor White says a family history means you are 10 times more likely to develop the disease, as are diabetics and short-sighted people. While there is no cure for glaucoma and none on the horizon, Professor White says significant progress has been made to understand and treat the illness.

“Glaucoma is one of the leading causes of irreversible blindness in the world, but if diagnosed early, treatment can be administered to prevent the disease progressing,” he says. “The rates of blindness from glaucoma have halved in the western world in recent years.

“There is also a lot of work currently looking into the role of specific genes that may increase the risk of glaucoma. The work is ongoing and may lead to new treatments in the future.”

Nonetheless, he stresses that keeping tabs on your eye health is a hugely important step. “Early detection is vital to the prevention of glaucoma progressing,” he says. “Treatments range from eye drops and laser treatments to surgery should other treatments not be effective or suitable.”

Glaucoma is known as the 'sneak thief of sight'

Unfortunately, there is another eye condition which also affects many Australians. One in seven people over 50 is affected by macular degeneration. It too has no cure.

Risk factors include a family history and smoking. Smokers are three times more likely to develop the condition.

Unlike glaucoma, however, it can present with some symptoms, though in the early stages of the disease sufferers may not notice anything is wrong and may still have normal vision.

Macular degeneration comes in various forms – wet, dry and others – and treatment depends on how early it’s picked up and how it has impacted the retina. There is no treatment for dry MD (research is ongoing to change this), but there are various treatments that can help stabilise wet MD and slow its progress.

According to the Macular Degeneration Foundation, MD “is the name given to a group of degenerative diseases of the retina that cause progressive, painless loss of central vision, affecting the ability to see fine detail, drive, read and recognise faces”. As with glaucoma, the earlier it is detected the greater your chances of preserving your vision.

Macular degeneration is a progressive disease. It begins in the special layer of cells known as the Retinal Pigment Epithelium (RPE) which lies underneath the retina. The early changes can be detected when your eyes are examined. These changes appear as “drusen” or pigment changes and suggest that you may go on to lose some vision.

According to the MD foundation, some symptoms of macular degeneration are:

• Having trouble reading or doing any activity that requires fine vision;
• Straight lines appear distorted, ie, wavy or bent;
• Distinguishing faces becomes difficult;
• Dark patches or empty spaces appear in the centre of your vision.

There are lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk of getting macular degeneration and they include not smoking, staying at a healthy weight, exercising regularly, a diet that includes eating fish up to three times a week, as well as dark leafy vegetables and fresh fruit daily and a small amount of nuts a week.

Protecting your eyes from excessive sunlight exposure, including wearing proper polarised sunglasses is also encouraged. The foundation also recommends you talk to your GP about including a Lutein supplement as studies have shown it can act as a protection against MD if your diet is inadequate.

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