What Causes Glaucoma and How Can You Reduce Your Risk?

More than 400,000 Canadians and 67 million people worldwide are living with glaucoma, a condition that causes more blindness than any other disease. In its early stages, the most common form of this condition, open-angle glaucoma, is not painful nor does it cause changes in vision, meaning that it is often undetected for years.

Anyone can develop glaucoma but there are some genetic factors and lifestyle factors associated with an increased risk of the disease.

Risks for Glaucoma

Those over the age of sixty, who have a family history of glaucoma, who have leukemia or sickle cell anaemia or who are African-American have a higher risk of developing glaucoma, as do those with diabetes or severe myopia (near-sightedness). African-Americans are actually five times more likely to develop the condition and four times as likely to go blind because of it. This is perhaps due not only to a genetic predisposition and increased rates of diabetes in this population, but also due to inequalities in access to health care.

Hispanic Americans also have an increased risk of glaucoma compared to Caucasians, while people of Asian descent face a slightly increased risk of closed-angle glaucoma. Normal-tension glaucoma is very common in people with Japanese ancestry.

Around half of all people with this condition are thought to be unaware that they have glaucoma, meaning that damage to the optic nerve often goes unchecked. This damage can occur as a result of increased intraocular pressure (IOP) and/or poor blood flow to the optic nerve.

Modifiable Risk Factors for Glaucoma

Interestingly, not only are those with diabetes thought to have twice the risk of developing glaucoma, those with glaucoma also have an increased risk of developing diabetes. A diagnosis of one may help motivate a person to make dietary and lifestyle changes that can reduce the risk of the other. Several conditions affected by lifestyle and diet are secondary causes of glaucoma, including:

  • Diabetes, high blood pressure, and migraine
  • Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid gland)
  • Obesity, overweight, and sleep apnea

Some forms of arthritis are also associated with an increased incidence of glaucoma, which may be due in part to the use of corticosteroids in managing symptoms of the joint disease. Prolonged steroid use or high doses of steroids increase the risk for glaucoma, as do physical injury to the eye or eye surgery.

Reducing Your Risk of Glaucoma

Avoiding glaucoma is really a matter of risk reduction and careful monitoring. If your ophthalmologist observes elevated eye pressure they will likely recommend regular checks of IOC and tests for optic nerve damage.

Sometimes, glaucoma occurs as a result of blunt force trauma to the eye, such as getting hit in the eye with a hockey puck. Those working in manual jobs should be sure to wear safety goggles to avoid trauma to the eye that could increase the risk of glaucoma.

If you have risk factors for diabetes you will usually be advised to undergo a comprehensive eye exam every year to check for signs of glaucoma and signs of diabetic retinopathy, macular degeneration, and cataracts, all of which are more common with diabetes. Following guidelines for the prevention and management of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity may also be the best way to reduce your risk of glaucoma. This includes:

  • Keeping to a healthy body weight
  • Getting regular exercise (aerobic and resistance) as approved by your physician
  • Eating a low glycemic index diet
  • Choosing nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains
  • Avoiding refined carbohydrates, processed foods and trans fats
  • Getting plenty of fibre (both soluble and insoluble)

Excessive acute intake of caffeine and other fluids is associated with a risk of temporarily increased eye pressure and should be avoided in those at risk of, or diagnosed with glaucoma.

Nutrition and Natural Approaches to Preventing Glaucoma

There is no evidence of specific nutrients helping to protect against glaucoma but a diet rich in antioxidants that helps to control inflammation, blood pressure, weight, and blood sugar levels may help reduce risk of secondary causes of glaucoma. Ginkgo biloba, a herb that has been found to aid circulation to the optic nerve, may be effective in protecting against the damaging effects of increased intraocular pressure.

Any use of natural health products should first be discussed with a health care practitioner to ensure safety, and it is also important to note that the loss of vision in glaucoma is usually very slow meaning that it can be difficult to notice a decline. It is, however, essential to continue taking prescribed medications such as eye drops for glaucoma as these may help halve the risk of developing the disease in some at risk patients and lower eye pressure by 20% for some patients.

Safety First!

High-impact exercise can be dangerous for those with pigmentary glaucoma and should be avoided, and, just to thwart your upcoming adventures, bear in mind that anyone with increased intraocular pressure, or thin retinas shouldn’t bungee jump, do headstands, or practice yoga inversions as these can all temporarily increase the pressure in the eye.

Leigh Matthews