Silent Thief of Sight

When most people think of an inheritance, they think of money or sentimental items that are passed down from generation to generation. While material goods can mean a lot, health professionals are encouraging New Zealanders to remember that the most important thing they can to pass down to their family is knowledge of their family’s health history.

Increasing evidence shows that genetics plays a large role in the development of non-communicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes, asthma, cardiovascular diseases and mental health[i]. If one is aware of their susceptibility to a disease, they may be able to alter their lifestyle to lessen the potential for getting the disease or have precautionary health checks to ensure any signs of a potential issue are identified early.

While the above ‘big five’ genetic diseases are often widely talked about, what many people don’t know about is the role that genetics can play in vision loss, which is expected to emerge as the most prevalent condition among older New Zealanders in future years.

Specsavers Optometrist, Ian Russell says most sight-threatening diseases, including macular degeneration and glaucoma, can be hereditary so people with a direct family history have a much higher chance of developing the disease.

“One of the most common sight-threatening eye conditions is called glaucoma. It’s often nicknamed the ‘silent thief of sight’ because it has little to no obvious symptoms and sight is lost at such a gradual pace, it often goes unnoticed until it’s too late. Currently, 50% of people who have glaucoma aren’t aware they have it,” says Ian.

“First degree relatives of a person with glaucoma have an almost one in four chance of developing glaucoma in their lifetime, so knowing your family health history is important,” Ian added.

Responsible for 50% of all cases of blindness globally, macular degeneration is another eye disease that can be hereditary. Macular degeneration affects the retina at the back of the eye, which is responsible for central vision. When macular degeneration occurs, central vision gradually becomes distorted which can lead to complete loss of central eyesight over time.

“While there are multiple lifestyle risk factors, family history has been identified as one of the most important attributing factors, particularly in the development of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). In fact, individuals with a parent or sibling with AMD have a fifty percent likelihood of also being diagnosed with the disease” Ian said.

Despite this, eye health is an important conversation that many New Zealanders have admitted to not having with their family. Research has revealed that 63 per cent of New Zealanders aren’t aware of AMD or don’t know their family history of the disease.iii

“It’s really important for everyone to be aware of their family’s medical history. We tend to know if we have a family history of diabetes or cancer, but we should also know if we have a family history of eye disease… so we would encourage families to have those conversations,” says Ian.

With most sight-threatening eye conditions occurring after the age of 50, Specsavers is also encouraging older New Zealanders to start taking preventative measures to look after their eye health and eyesight as in most instances sight loss can be prevented or slowed down through appropriate treatment and management.

“Just because our eyesight deteriorates as we get older doesn’t mean we should experience unnecessary vision loss. We recommend that everyone over the age of 65 gets their eyes tested every year because early detection of eye diseases like glaucoma, macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy is absolutely critical in preventing vision loss.

"At Specsavers, our standard eye test includes an OCT advanced 3D eye scan which helps our optometrists detect eye diseases and eye conditions long before you notice any symptoms.,” Ian said.

[i] World Health Organisation -
iiMacular Disease Foundation Australia, 2017, Submission to the Productivity Commission: National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) Costs Position Paper
iiiResearch New Zealand commissioned by Specsavers 2018