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African-Americans Face Greater Glaucoma Risk

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Duke Health News 919-660-1306

Glaucoma is a form of eye disease that can slowly rob a
person of vision. Because it damages the optic nerve gradually
and presents no symptoms for many years, it's often called "the
sneak thief of sight."

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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