The National Eye Institute today warned that many Americans who are at high risk for glaucoma and diabetic eye diseases are not seeking adequate eye care, based on findings from a new national survey.
Dr. James Mason, head of the U.S. Public Health Service, urged people at risk for glaucoma, especially blacks over age 40 and all people over 60, to have an eye examination through dilated pupils every two years.
He also said that people with diabetes should undergo an eye examination through dilated pupils at least once a year.
"Millions of people could be saved from vision loss, even blindness, by following these recommendations," Mason said in Bethesda as he launched the National Eye Health Education Program -- the first federally sponsored, nationwide eye health education program.
"There are 120,000 Americans currently blind from glaucoma alone," he said. "And about half of the 14 million Americans with diabetes will develop eye problems."
Many Americans are screened for glaucoma with tonometry, a test that measures the pressure within the eye, but Dr. Carl Kupfer, the National Eye Institute director, said that alone doesn't give the ophthalmologist enough information to diagnose the disease.
Complete glaucoma testing should also include pupil dilation, in which drops are placed into the eyes to allow a thorough examination of the retina and the optic nerve. The retina is the back part of the eyeball on which the image is formed. The optic nerve carries visual images from the retina to the brain.
Also, a visual field test should be used to detect early loss of peripheral or side vision, he said.
Aside from blacks over 40 and everyone over 60, people with a family history of glaucoma also are at high risk for the disease that occurs when the eye's fluid pressure builds and threatens irreversible damage to the optic nerve.
Blacks are particularly vulnerable. They are five times more likely to develop glaucoma than whites and four times more likely to be
come blind from the disease, Mason said.
About 3 million Americans have glaucoma, yet about half of them don't know it because there are no symptoms, at least not in the early stages. As the disease progresses, a person will notice his peripheral vision failing. Without intervention, this can lead to blindness.
National Eye Institute officials also said that many of the country's 14 million people with diabetes are unaware they are at risk for diabetes-related eye problems and many are not obtaining regular eye exams through dilated pupils.
The NEI, which is a part of the National Institutes of Health, also released other findings from the national survey of 1,250 adults, co-sponsored by the NEI and the Lions Club International to determine the public's awareness of the facts about eye disorders.
An analysis of data from two subsamples of survey respondents at high risk for glaucoma -- 161 blacks over age 40 and 287 older people of all races -- shows that many people at high risk for glaucoma know little about the disease, many are not receiving adequate care and few are aware of eye health information.
But, when asked to choose the worst of five disabilities -- loss of eyesight, memory, hearing, speech or arm or leg -- 50 percent of blacks over 40 and 42 percent of all older people cited loss of eyesight as "the worst thing that could happen" to them.
For more information about glaucoma or diabetic eye disease, people should write to: National Eye Health Education Program, Box 20/20. Bethesda, Md. 20892.