Data from the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) and Health Professionals Follow-up Study (HPFS) continue to reveal new insights into diseases with complex risk factors, such as glaucoma. In the most recent publication related to NHS-HPFS data, researchers have identified several major risk factors for developing exfoliation syndrome (ES), which can significantly increase a person’s risk for developing glaucoma.
ES occurs when material from the iris rubs off. It can be seen on the lens as a whitish flaky material, but it does not impair vision. The main danger of this material is that it can clog the eye’s drainage angle, leading to elevated intraocular pressure which damages the optic nerve, which is what we call glaucoma. In addition, ES can contribute to your cataract risk, as the flecks may increase crystallization of the lens’ proteins. Now researchers have identified several risk factors that contribute to your likelihood of experiencing this eye disease.
The dominant risk factors seem to be genetics, age, gender, and where you live. The genetics and age connections have long been known. People with a family history of the condition have essentially double the risk for developing it themselves. Risk for the condition also increases with age–the mean age of sufferers seems to be in the early 70s.
Women seem to be at a greater risk for this condition than men, but it is unknown whether this is due to hormonal, environmental, or anatomical variables. perhaps the most striking discovery is that where you live can have a dramatic impact on your risk for developing this condition. Those in the northernmost parts of the US have the highest risk, with those in the middle US have a 47% decreased risk, and those in the southernmost third of the US have a 75% reduced risk. Surprisingly, where you live now is only the second most strongly associated location for your risk of ES. The most strongly associated location was the residence of people at age 15.
The NHS-HPFS data utilizes lifetime data from about 130,000 subjects and can identify some important correlations, though of course it cannot determine whether these are simple correlations or actual causal relationships.
The most important thing to remember about glaucoma is that it can often be subtle with no symptoms before you begin losing vision. To prevent vision loss, you should have regular appointments with your eye doctor for glaucoma screening. If you do not currently have one, you can find an ophthalmologist in your area to help identify glaucoma before vision loss.