How I Saved a Man's Sight

My curiosity saved a man's eyesight.

When I was in medical school, my fellow classmates did their best memorizing – word for word – what we were taught. I was more interested in understanding the why and how. I wasn't focused on passing tests. I wanted to learn the best ways to help people.

During my residency, I treated a patient with a tiny blood clot in the back of his eye. Rather than following the conventional wisdom and having him breathe into a paper bag, I had him lie upside down on a couch with tons of pillows at one end. Then, at irregular intervals, I had him get up and jog or do jumping jacks.

The dilation and increased pressure in his vessels pushed the blood through and broke up the clot. His field of vision improved right in front of me... and right in front of the older chief resident who was disapprovingly shaking his head at me.

Thanks to my quick thinking, this man can still enjoy playing a round of golf.

Today, I want to help you save your own eyesight from a type of eye disorder – called glaucoma – that slowly damages the optic nerve in the back of the eye and causes vision loss.

Glaucoma is often characterized by increased pressure inside the eye. However, some people with high eye pressure never develop glaucoma... And some folks develop glaucoma even though their eye pressure is normal.

It's one of the leading causes of blindness in the world. Around 3 million Americans have glaucoma. And according to a new study, some folks have glaucoma without realizing it...

Earlier this month, Swedish researchers published some insights on glaucoma from an ongoing study on the health of older people. The researchers asked more than a thousand 70-year-olds about their eye health and family history of glaucoma. The researchers also had 560 of the participants undergo eye exams at the Sahlgrenska University Hospital.

Here's what they found:

  • Nearly 5% of the folks who were examined had glaucoma, and around half of them were unaware they had it prior to their exam.
  • The folks with glaucoma were more likely to have a close relative with glaucoma compared with the folks without glaucoma.
  • Of the folks who were newly diagnosed, 67% still had normal eye pressure.

This means that catching glaucoma in its early stages – when you can still do a lot to save your vision – is key. There is currently no cure for glaucoma. But there are three things you can do to help save your eyesight...

1. Get your eyes checked.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends folks aged 40 to 54 get screened for glaucoma every two to four years, folks aged 55 to 64 get screened every one to three years, and folks aged 65 and older get screened every one to two years.

The frequency of your checkups will depend on your exam results and risk factors. Some common risk factors include:

  • Being over the age of 55
  • Being of Black, Asian, or Hispanic heritage
  • Having glaucoma in your family history
  • Having certain medical conditions, like diabetes, migraines, or high blood pressure

Finding an eye doctor who you like working with is also important. Together, you should create an exam schedule that fits your specific needs. If you don't already have one, or if you think it's time to change doctors, ask your friends and family for recommendations.

2. Don't ignore your sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea occurs when you briefly stop breathing during sleep. A small study from Hokkaido University in Japan found that folks with obstructive sleep apnea are 10 times more likely to have glaucoma than folks without obstructive sleep apnea.

Researchers think that cutting off your oxygen for these short bursts is enough to damage your optic nerve. So if you're waking up at night and choking or gasping for air, or your partner tells you that you're a loud snorer, enroll in a sleep study. Talking with your primary care doctor and insurance provider will help you locate sleep specialists near you.

3. Get regular exercise.

A 2018 study from the University of Iowa found that folks getting 150 minutes of moderate intensity (or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity) aerobic exercise per week were nearly 50% less likely to develop glaucoma than folks who did not exercise.

Don't neglect your daily movement. Do what I do and go for a brisk 20-minute walk every day. If you miss a day, walk a little bit longer the following day. If you can't walk, move your body however you're able to. Any movement is better than no movement at all.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
September 26, 2023