Eye Health and Family History

Each of us is entirely unique, not just in personality, but in health, as well. Our individual genetic makeup puts some of us at an increased risk of certain diseases. A look into your family history may uncover the possibility that you inherited more than just a need for prescription eyeglasses.

But a predisposition does not mean a disease is certain, only that the odds are increased. When you find yourself at a high risk of a given condition, there are usually still ways to lower your odds and stay healthier longer.

Family history and other factors

When it comes to our medical predispositions, there are a lot of factors outside of our control. Aside from genetics, other factors such as age, ethnicity and biological sex can all play a part in what issues we may or may not be likely to face.

When doctors review a medical history, they will typically focus on parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Only blood relatives are of importance to a medical history. People who did not grow up in the custody of their biological relatives may have a harder time piecing together a complete medical history. However, even if you cannot track down all the details, telling your doctors what you do know can still be immensely helpful.

Tell your family history to your eye doctor

Just like your general practitioner, your ophthalmologist will be able to better serve you if they are aware of your family’s medical history. Specifically, an eye doctor will want to know about eye problems present in your family, such as whether or not your family has a history of macular degeneration or glaucoma.

Your ophthalmologist may also ask questions about diabetes, hypertension or other issues that are known to cause eye problems. Ophthalmology goes hand in hand with other areas of medicine, working to catch signs of dangerous diseases like diabetes as early as possible.

What eye problems are genetic?

Sometimes we mistakenly write off eye problems as inevitable and independent of genetic factors, and for some issues, like presbyopia, this is true. However, many issues relating to eye health are actually strongly influenced by our genes.

Some genetic eye issues, like near- and farsightedness, are mostly harmless and can be easily treated with surgery or even cheap prescription glasses. However, there are some more serious eye issues that you may be at an increased risk for, such as:

  • Macular degeneration

A loss of sight in the center of one’s field of vision frequently associated with age as well as genetics.

  • Cataracts

Cloudy vision typically reported in older persons. Cataracts are mostly related to ageing; however, some people are at a higher risk of early cataracts or more severe cataracts as they age.

  • Glaucoma

A blanket term for several different issues relating to damage of the optic nerve. Some glaucoma is hereditary.

  • Diabetic retinopathy

Black spots asymmetrically occurring in one’s field of vision due to swelling of the retina.

It is important to remember that nothing is certain. A genetic predisposition is not a guarantee that you will develop any given eye disease, nor is a lack of family history going to guarantee you immunity. Also remember that a family history is not the same as a genetic test. A family history of a disease only means you are more likely to carry a genetic marker for that disease.

Other circumstances, such as eye damage from trauma or exposure can cause many of the aforementioned problems, as well. For example, too much consistent exposure to the sun’s UV rays may cause macular degeneration even in someone with no family history of the problem. It is for this reason that prevention is so important.

Prevention is key

The main benefit of researching your family’s medical history is that you can learn what issues you may be predisposed to long before you begin to develop them.

Yearly eye exams are recommended so an ophthalmologist can evaluate your eye health even if you do not wear eyeglasses. But many people are not receiving this critical eye care. The CDC recognizes that people skip eye exams because they either don’t have insurance to cover the costs or believe that eye exams are only necessary when vision problems arise. This second options is particularly problematic, because many eye problems have no early warning signs. By the time symptoms show up, it may be too late to prevent vision loss or other problems.

Your eye doctor will go over specific preventative measures you can take depending on your risk factors. You may be scheduled for eye exams more frequently, and the doctor may recommend you watch your weight, wear extra eye protection such as UV-resistant prescription sunglasses or incorporate certain vitamins, such as vitamin A, into a more prominent role in your diet.

Nothing can guarantee you immunity from eye problems, but with the proper knowledge and medical advice, you can certainly nudge the odds in your favor.

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