AFRICAN-AMERICANS FACE GREATER GLAUCOMA RISK
Leon Herndon, M.D., assistant professor of ophthalmology at the Duke University Eye Center, says glaucoma progresses stealthily, often for many years, before resulting in serious loss of vision.
"It is a disease of the optic nerve, in which the eye pressure becomes elevated," Herndon says. "This leads to optic nerve damage, which results in peripheral field loss and, ultimately, blindness."
While glaucoma is a concern for any middle-aged or older person, Herndon says the disease strikes one group faster, earlier and with more devastating results than any other.
"The greatest risk factor for glaucoma is being of African-American ethnicity," he says. "Blacks have a four to six times higher rate of glaucoma than their white counterparts. If you're an African-American, your risk is extremely high. And if you have a family history of glaucoma, this increases your risk."
If glaucoma is detected early, treatment options to help relieve intraocular pressure include medication, laser treatments and, ultimately, surgery. Herndon says the key is early screening and detection, and this should begin even earlier for African-Americans. While annual screening is recommended for the rest of the population starting at age 50, he encourages blacks to begin a decade earlier.
"The indications for screening processes are earlier with the African-American race," he says. "We say by age 40, if you're an African-American, you should have a dilated eye examination once a year."
Why glaucoma strikes African-Americans so hard is not yet known. Herndon is joining other researchers in the West African nation of Senegal this month to study that country's population, which has been hard-hit by the disease.
"We think it is possible there may be genetic or environmental clues in the African motherland that may help us eventually prevent this terrible disease," he says.
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