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Cholesterol drugs can minimize the risk of glaucoma

A woman has her eyes checked by an ophthalmologist. Celso Tello, MD, says statins lower cholesterol, which can improve blood flow to organs and the optic nerve, reducing the risk of glaucoma.

Taking statins can lower your cholesterol, improve blood flow to the optic nerve and play a role in developing the eye condition

High cholesterol can cause serious health issues, including heart attack or stroke. So taking statins to reduce cholesterol improves heart and overall health.

It’s also good for reducing the risk of glaucoma, according to a recent study in JAMA Ophthalmology, where researchers observed more than 136,000 healthy, glaucoma-free 40-year-old adults for more than a decade. By the end of the study, 886 glaucoma cases were diagnosed and those taking statins had a 15-percent lower risk of acquiring the disease. Those who took statins for five or more years were 21-percent less likely to develop glaucoma.

As one of the leading causes of irreversible blindness, glaucoma impacts more than 3 million people in the US and is most commonly caused by elevated eye pressure, although blood flow to the optic nerve also plays a significant role on the susceptibility to develop glaucoma.

Less blood, less nutrients and higher the risk

Catching high cholesterol early can save you from a lifetime health issues, including glaucoma.

Too much cholesterol (a wax-like substance in your bloodstream) can build fatty deposits in arteries and negatively affect your blood circulation. The moment blood flow is interrupted, there will be less oxygen and nutrients going to your organs and the optic nerve.

Once that happens, the nerve gets weaker and becomes more sensitive to insult such as elevated eye pressure.

What are statins?

Statins are medications that lower the cholesterol level in the bloodstream by blocking the substance needed to produce cholesterol in the liver. They also allow your body to reabsorb the cholesterol already deposited in arterial walls and send it to the liver, where it is metabolized.

There are several statins available in the US, including popular medications like Lipitor and Zocor.

Statins and glaucoma

Glaucoma patients usually have eye pressures higher than the normal range (10-21 mm Hg), but there are other types of glaucoma that don’t really depend on high pressures in the eye.

In normal tension glaucoma — also called low-tension or low-pressure glaucoma — the optic nerve is damaged despite relatively normal eye pressures. These patients have risk factors other than high eye pressure including: sleep apnea, low blood pressure, cardiac arrhythmia and vasospastic conditions such as Raynaud phenomenon and migraine headache. These risk factors decreases the blood supply to the optic nerve, increasing its susceptibility to glaucoma.

Typically, ophthalmologists look at all risk factors — high eye pressure, low blood pressure and so on — but they usually don’t check patients’ cholesterol level.

If you have high cholesterol, you should visit your ophthalmologist. You may be at a high risk of or may be developing glaucoma. Remember, glaucoma causes irreversible damage to your vision, so it is smart to get checked out.

What can you do?

High cholesterol is typically due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors, including weight, diet and stress. You should talk to your physician about statins if your cholesterol is high.

Additional ways to reduce cholesterol and your risk of glaucoma include:

  • Exercise: Try to walk at least 20 minutes a day.
  • Watch what you drink: Drink water and try to avoid juices and sodas that are high in carbohydrates. Coffee is OK in moderation — a cup or two is good; more than that can potentially raise the pressure in your eyes.
  • Don’t smoke: Smoking should be avoided at all times.
  • Reduce alcohol and eat less carbs: Both are good in moderation, but excessive drinking or carbs can raise your cholesterol.
  • Change your diet: Try a low-sodium diet, more vegetables and whole grains and avoid animal fat products.

Everybody over the age of 40 should have a regular eye exam, especially if you have a family history of glaucoma or other eye diseases. Also, if your cholesterol is too high, visit an ophthalmologist. It can indirectly affect your optic nerve.

Celso Tello, MD, FACS, is the chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at Lenox Hill Hospital and Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital. He is also Professor of Ophthalmology at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell.

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