'Sneak thief of sight': Millions have glaucoma, half don't know they have it

'Sneak thief of sight': Millions have glaucoma, half don't know they have it

Three million Americans have glaucoma, an eye condition that causes a slow loss of vision, but half do not even know they have it.

Glaucoma is often called the "sneak thief of sight" because people will not notice symptoms until the condition is moderate or advanced. It can be slowed or prevented, but there is no cure.

“I wake up some days and everything is cloudy,” said glaucoma patient Joseph Nelson.

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The retired Waltham fire lieutenant is one of 1.3 million new cases expected to be diagnosed over the next decade. Instead of the active lifestyle he planned, Nelson tells Boston 25 News he's struggling with simple things.

“One day I was riding a bike and all of a sudden... I couldn't see anything!” Nelson said.

He described his difficulty reading labels when grocery shopping, his inability to read texts or social media, and how he “listens” to TV instead of watching now.

Nelson says he first noticed vision problems in his 40s, and later learned his family had a strong history of glaucoma.

“If you're a blood relative of a patient with glaucoma, you have a very high risk of getting glaucoma in your lifetime,” said  Dr. David Friedman, the head of the glaucoma service at Mass Eye and Ear in Boston.

SYMPTOMS AND TREATMENT 

Increased pressure in the eye squeezes and damages the nerve for glaucoma patients.  Dr. Friedman says the symptoms, like trouble with bright lights or missing side vision, are not often that clear to patients, because when one eye struggles, the other makes up for it.  That can allow the condition to progress, unchecked. Treatment can include drops, lasers, and surgery to minimize future damage, but there's no cure.

“Once the vision's lost, it's lost, and at present, we have no way to bring it back,” said Dr. Friedman.

More than 3 million Americans have glaucoma, but only half of those people know it. And it affects people of all ages, from newborns to seniors.

“People who are very nearsighted are at particularly high risk,” said Dr. Friedman.  Who recommends getting your eyes checked regularly, even if you don't notice sight problems, or have had Lasik surgery.

Race is another big risk factor.  Dr. Friedman says African Americans are 4-times more likely to develop glaucoma and older Hispanic people also have increased risk.

Doctors recommend you get your eyes screened at least once every 5 years before the age of 50.

“Usually when you're born, your vision is like an 8-10 lane highway... I have a one-lane highway,” said Joe Nelson.  His message for others: “Get your eyes tested. Ask your family about their health!”