Yesterday, we talked about Glaucoma Awareness Month, which is this month, January 2012. We all agree there are far too many of these dedicated days and months out there. Some are pretty silly, entertaining to be sure, though not really worth calendar space – National High 5 Day, Rollerskating Without Socks Month, National No Pants Day, Pickled Pepper Month and a bunch of others come to mind that are fun but seriously less than inspiring – but the glaucoma thing is different.
Glaucoma is a major cause of vision loss in this country. Despite all our remarkable medical technology, this devastating and widespread disease continues to impair and blind our parents and grandparents, our friends and co-workers, our siblings and ourselves with shocking, usually silent efficiency. Some 2.2 millions Americans are already directly affected by its debilitating ravages.
The whole point of Glaucoma Awareness Month is to educate us about the disease, a disease that affects every community, every family, a disease that has no cure. Early detection and treatment remain the best way to prevent vision loss. Here we are in a society utterly devoted to all things visual – what doesn’t have a screen attached to it at this point? – and yet we remain oddly indifferent to a leading cause of blindness.
The National Eye Institute (NEI) promotes much more than education and awareness efforts. It also funds research, important and far-reaching research. Its epidemiological studies have identified at-risk populations, including older Mexican Americans and African Americans ages 40 and up – an otherwise vital group that may not have seen itself as vulnerable to eye disease when still so young. NEI researchers and scientists are developing new techniques, such as optical coherence tomography and confocal laser scanning ophthalmoscopy, ways to make images of the optic nerve and retina. The Diagnostic Innovations in Glaucoma Study and the Advanced Imaging for Glaucoma Study are both important studies that are using these techniques to create and develop ever-better tools to diagnose and then manage glaucoma.
Granted, the study names and techniques are hard to pronounce and it’s even harder to figure out what these studies and trials actually accomplish, let alone how they apply to our everyday lives. But apply they do. And there are NEI-led programs, including the Ocular Hypertension Treatment Study (OHTS) and the Advanced Glaucoma Intervention Study (AGIS), that have helped strengthen and refine strategies for reducing glaucoma-related vision loss.
The AGIS found that specific traits (such as race or ethnicity, for example) help predict which surgical treatment is more likely to bring about better visual results. The OHTS confirmed that medicated eye drops to reduce intraocular pressure are truly effective at delaying the onset of glaucoma, and even preventing it altogether, among people first identified to be at high risk of getting the disease. Who wouldn’t rather have eye drops than surgery? The trick is to recognize and treat those at risk at the earliest possible time – which takes us back to education.
Education lets us understand and control our our health destiny, a responsibility we should both respect and cherish. It’s never enough to simply pay our health insurance premiums and leave the rest to the doctors and the drugs. The more we know, the more we understand and participate, the better.
NEI researchers are working on new ways to study glaucoma disease mechanisms. Models that simulate glaucoma help scientists study how increased eye pressure actually causes optic nerve cell death. And then there are some patients who have perfectly normal eye pressure but still have glaucoma. How does that work? Another major focus of NEI research is on the development of neuroprotective treatment approaches. Scientists are working on gene therapy, stem cells and vaccines as potential protectors of optic nerve cells. Protected means not damaged, and not damaged means not leading to blindness. It is hoped that such therapies apply to a number of visual neuropathies, especially to glaucoma that does not respond to pressure-reducing treatments.
Hard to follow, some of the research? Sure. But worth knowing about? Absolutely. And what’s the emphasis? Once again, p-r-e-v-e-n-t-i-o-n. So keep an eye on your dad, your gran, your buddies, yourself. Talk it over with your primary care doctor, get that exam if necessary. See that you and yours stay ahead of it.
For more information about NEI glaucoma research programs, go to NEI.NIH.gov. And for even more information, particularly about financial assistance available for eye care, visit NEI.NIH.gov/glaucoma.
Have a lovely weekend!