Breakthroughs in Glaucoma Research

by Jackie Kruglyakova

Affecting more than 60.5 million people globally and over 2.7 million people over 40 years of age in the United States alone, glaucoma is the leading cause of irreversible blindness worldwide. Glaucoma is a condition that results in damage to the eye’s optic nerve, the eye’s communication with the brain.

Scientists agree that, if left untreated, glaucoma can cause total permanent blindness within a few years. However, new scientific evidence suggests that the number of people who experience total permanent blindness due to glaucoma may be decreasing rapidly. According to a study published last month by the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the probability of blindness due to glaucoma has nearly halved since 1980.

A new study conducted by a team of researchers based at the Mayo Clinic sought to find trends in glaucoma-related blindness in the United States and allocate medical and health resources according to those patterns.

Targeting their research to Olmstead County, Minn., the researchers studied every incidence case of open-angle glaucoma (OAG), the most common form of glaucoma, diagnosed from 1965-2009.

They found that the 20-year probability and the population incidence of blindness due to OAG alone, in at least one eye, had decreased from 25.8 percent for subjects diagnosed between 1965 and 1980 to 13.5 percent for those diagnosed between 1981 and 2000. Within 10 years of diagnosis, the population incidence of blindness also decreased for those groups.

Advanced glaucoma management techniques and learned criteria for diagnosis have provided physicians and caregivers with alternative methods of treatment. When studied on an individual basis, the probability of blindness from glaucoma appeared to have decreased dramatically.

“These results are extremely encouraging for both those suffering from glaucoma and the doctors who care for them, and suggest that the improvements in the diagnosis and treatment have played a key role in improving outcomes,” said Arthur J. Sit, M.D., associate professor of ophthalmology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine.

Sit added, “Despite this good news, the rate at which people continue to go blind due to OAG is still unacceptably high. This is likely due to late diagnosis and our incomplete understanding of glaucoma, so it is critical that research into this devastating disease continues, and all eye care providers be vigilant in looking for early signs of glaucoma during routine exams.”

However, the effect on the rates of visual impairment on a population level has remained unclear. Despite the clear trend of progression, 15 percent of the patients that were diagnosed more recently still progressed to blindness. This statistic shows just how unpredictable this condition is. While there is no cure, medications and surgery can halt the progression of the condition.

As researchers strive to understand the full complexity of this condition, patients around the nation are being educated about risk factor awareness and timely diagnosis. For example, the World Glaucoma Association and the World Glaucoma Patient Association launched their 6th World Glaucoma Week from March 9 to March 15.

As part of World Glaucoma Week, the ‘B-I-G- Beat Invisible Glaucoma’ campaign is directed at educating patients on lifestyle factors associated with glaucoma. The campaign also seeks to clear up a number of myths about glaucoma, which may be leading people to evaluate their lifestyle choices in ways that are detrimental to their health.

While the incidence of glaucoma remains high, medical research is improving the world’s understanding of the disease as well as its outcomes. There is still much to be done, but the decrease in the rate of blindness due to glaucoma is a testament to the potential for future scientific advances to decrease the impact of this widespread disease.

The incidence of glaucoma remains high and there is still much to be done. However, medical research is improving the world’s understanding of the disease as well as its outcomes. Scientists’ success in decreasing the probability of blindness due to glaucoma is just the first of many advances in lessening the impact of this widespread disease.

With numerous efforts from the World Health Organization, hundreds of non-profit organizations and research centers, the mazes around glaucoma are gradually being understood, and countless cases are being prevented.

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