African-Americans at high risk for glaucoma, others at risk, too

SEATTLE — An estimated 72,000 people in Washington have glaucoma, and half of them don’t know it.

Many of them are people of color, and African-Americans are at particular risk.

Former artist and standup comedian Glen Jones lost most of his eyesight to glaucoma. As it happens, his beloved mother had glaucoma, too.

“And in one of the visits, one of her doctors said, ‘you know, we should probably be looking at you,’” said Jones. “And I said, ‘looking at me for what?’” And he said, ‘because your mom has glaucoma and you’re a direct descendant.’”

It opened his eyes to how the disease had already impacted his family.

“And then it turned out my aunt, her only sister, she had glaucoma, too,” he said. “I have some cousins that are dealing with it now.”

Glaucoma is “a very large risk factor” for African-Americans, according to Dr. John Whitehead, a board certified ophthalmologist at the Evergreen Eye Center in Seattle.

“Hypertension affects right about 56% of the African-American community,” Whitehead said. “Diabetes, about 11-1/2%, and glaucoma, about 10%. So, it’s a very high risk for the African-American population.”

And very few ever see it coming.

“It’s because we call glaucoma the sneak thief of sight,” said Whitehead. “It steals your vision without you even knowing it.”

The risk is high for other ethnic groups, too. Six to seven percent of Latinos have glaucoma. It’s about the same percentage for Asian-Americans. Among Caucasians, the highest incidence of glaucoma is found among Scandinavians, especially descendants of Vikings.

“Pressure is the only modifiable risk factor that we have for glaucoma,” said Whitehead.

If not caught early, high pressure in the eye can do damage that cannot be reversed. Whitehead said glaucoma often affects peripheral vision first, but our eyes can compensate for it.

“So, it’s an area you never notice,” he said. “But I can see it. And that’s where we like to find people. We know you’ve got glaucoma, we know you’ve got damage, but now we can stop it. Usually we do when we find it early.”

Treating glaucoma can include a seven-minute operation to repair the eye’s drainage system, relieving pressure on the optic nerve, preventing further damage.

“I had glaucoma and I also had cataracts,” said Donald Eichelberger. “So, I had cataract and glaucoma surgery at the same time.”

Eichelberger, a fiction writer and musician, received the sight-saving surgery that is Whitehead’s specialty.

“He took care of it,” said Eichelberger. “After the operation, that cataract was gone. I said, ‘Wow.’”

“See, I can do the whole blind thing,” said Glen Jones, donning dark shades.

Jones has not lost the sense of humor he says he inherited from his mother.

But his glaucoma was too advanced even for surgery to save his sight. Now, he is urging others to recognize a danger they may not yet be able to see.

“Protect your eyes,” advised Jones. “Don’t take them for granted.”

Whitehead said the most important thing you can likely do for yourself is be your own advocate to ensure you do not lose the most precious of gifts, the gift of sight.