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“People need to realize that sight-threatening concerns didn’t take a pause during the pandemic. Problems could be progressing that can lead to serious consequences for your quality of life and independence, including a greater risk for falling, car accidents, depression, isolation, and needing home care or nursing home placement. And, the risk for vision loss is the same—whether you have no symptoms, are in denial, or just don’t notice,” explains Daniel Paskowitz, MD, PhD, of Eye Care Specialists, an ophthalmology practice that has served the Milwaukee community since 1985.

“That’s why it’s important to schedule a regular eye exam every two years and sooner if you notice any changes or symptoms. Poor vision is not a fact of life as you grow older. It might only be a need for a new eyeglass prescription. Or, it could be as serious as blood sugar fluctuations causing damage to your retina. The only way to know for sure is to have an eye exam. Early diagnosis and treatment are the best ways to prevent vision loss,” says Michael Raciti, MD, an eye surgeon who conducts educational lectures for health care providers. Paskowitz adds, “We understand people’s hesitancy to come in during Covid, but rest assured, eye care specialists have instituted the strictest of safety protocols and are doing everything possible to keep an eye on patients’ health AND safety.”

The following is an overview of the three leading vision threats for the black community.

Diabetic Eye Disease – Distortion of Vision
Diabetes can cause abnormal retinal blood vessel growth, leakage and bleeding that can lead to blurring, dark spots, and loss of vision. Symptoms: Usually, none. Most people don’t notice a problem until it is so far advanced that lost vision can’t be restored. That’s why annual dilated eye exams are crucial for anyone with diabetes.

DIABETIC EYE DISEASE

African Americans have a higher risk of developing diabetes. Whether or not the cause is due to lifestyle (poor diet, lack of exercise), genetics or both, be aware: Diabetes does more than affect blood sugar levels. Without proper precautions, fluctuating and high blood sugar levels can cause the blood vessels that nourish the retina in the back of the eye to become weak or abnormal. This leads to leakage and bleeding that can blur vision and permanently rob a person of their sight. Many people, however, don’t notice a problem until permanent damage is already done. That’s why annual dilated eye exams are crucial—especially if you are black, which puts you at a three times greater risk of losing vision to diabetes than a white person.

“For patients who are diagnosed with diabetic eye disease, our practice has had excellent results with medications that are painlessly injected (every 4-12 weeks) into the eye to inhibit the growth of the abnormal blood vessels related to diabetic retinopathy. These medications (Avastin, Eylea and Lucentis) have been able to stabilize and sometimes even improve vision,” reports Brett Rhode, a partner at Eye Care Specialists and the Head of Ophthalmology at Aurora Sinai Medical Center.

Glaucoma – Loss of Side Vision
Damage to the optic nerve, which carries information from the retina to the brain. (Often related to increased fluid pressure in the eye.) Symptoms: None, then “tunneling” of vision.

GLAUCOMA

“Studies have shown that black Americans have a 6-8 times higher risk rate for developing glaucoma—a sight-robbing condition typically caused by increased fluid pressure inside the eye. Left untreated, this pressure can damage the optic nerve, impacting how visual information is carried from the retina to the brain. Glaucoma can cause permanent loss of side vision and eventually all sight. Unfortunately, the disease usually does NOT present symptoms. That’s why regular eye exams are vital to catching it early and preventing vision loss,” explains Mark Freedman, MD, an ophthalmologist with more than 33 years of experience.

“Glaucoma is usually treated with daily use of prescription drops to decrease fluid production in or increase fluid drainage out of the eye. In cases where drops alone cannot control the pressure, side effects are intolerable, or multiple types of drops are required, laser treatment (SLT or ECP) or Minimally Invasive Glaucoma Surgery (MIGS) procedures may be an alternative. These take just minutes to perform and are typically covered by Medicare and most insurances. They also offer the possibility of reducing or eliminating the burden of buying and taking daily glaucoma drops,” says Daniel Ferguson, MD, an eye surgeon who performs advanced laser and surgical procedures to alleviate glaucoma-related eye pressure.

Cataracts – Loss of Clear Vision
A clouding of the natural lens inside the eye that is most commonly caused by the aging process (like wrinkles, age spots) and which affects the eye’s ability to focus light to form an image to send to the brain. Symptoms: hazy, blurry vision; dimmed colors; sensitivity to light and glare.

CATARACTS

African Americans have nearly twice the risk of developing cataracts than Caucasians. This difference may be due to other medical illnesses, particularly diabetes. Black Americans are also much more likely to become blind from cataracts and glaucoma than white people, mostly due to lack of treatment. Despite this threat, most people don’t know the facts about cataracts until they are “eye-to-eye” with one.

“A cataract is NOT a film or growth on the eye. It is a clouding of the natural lens located inside the eye behind the pupil. It typically occurs as part of the aging process. Six out of 10 people over age 60 have some form of cataract. Symptoms include blurriness, sensitivity to glare, halos around lights, and new glasses not improving vision,” explains David Scheidt, OD, an optometrist who performs pre- and post-operative care for cataract patients.

The only effective treatment for cataracts is to make a very tiny opening in the eye, surgically remove the cloudy lens (cataract), and replace it with an intraocular lens implant (IOL) to once again focus light rays onto the retina for crisp vision. Patients are back home within just hours and are able to resume most normal activities. Cataract surgery is covered by Medicare as well as state and most insurances.

VISION PROTECTION TIPS

• Get regular eye checkups because eye diseases don’t always have symptoms. African Americans should get a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once every two years. If you have diabetes, you need an eye exam at least once a year. Ask your doctor how often you should have your eyes checked.
• Protect your eyes from the sun with sunglasses and a hat.
• Avoid smoking and excessive alcohol intake.
• Control your blood pressure and blood sugar.
• Eat a balanced diet high in healthy nutrients (like fruits and green leafy vegetables) and low in fat and sugar.

WARNING SIGNS

Schedule regular dilated eye exams every two years and call an eye care specialist promptly for an evaluation if you experience:

• Loss of vision / Blind spots
• Blurriness / Double vision • Pain in or around the eye • Seeing floaters, spots or webs
• Lines appearing distorted or wavy
• Difficulty seeing at night
• Flashes of light
• Sensitivity to light and glare
• Continual eye redness
• Dry eyes with itching and burning
• Excessive tear production
• Difficulty judging stairs or curbs
• Holding items closer to view
• Vision affects ability to do tasks
• Lens prescription changes don’t help

FREE BOOKLETS & INFORMATION

The doctors quoted in this article have been named “Top Doctors” by both Milwaukee and MKElifestyle magazines and recognized for their 36 years of work serving the black community. They have also written a series of detailed color booklets on common eye conditions, including diabetes, cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration (AMD). Call 414-321-7035 for free copies or for information about scheduling a comprehensive eye exam (typically covered by Medicare and insurance). Eye Care Specialists has offices on 7th & Wisconsin Ave., across from Mayfair Mall, and 102nd & National Ave. They also offer extensive information on their website at www.eyecarespecialists.net.

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