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Robert Cross, M.D.

By: Robert Cross, M.D. on April 2nd, 2021

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How Family Health History Affects Your Vision

Medical Perspectives

One of your most important senses is your vision. It gives you the ability to be independent and self-sufficient. Your quality of life can be greatly affected if you were to lose your vision, even partially.

There are also many diseases that can affect your vision even if it is not a vision-related disease. Taking care of your eyes, knowing your family health history, and, of course, talking to your primary care doctor or eye doctor regularly about your vision are the three best ways to maintain healthy vision both now and in the future.

Why You Should Know Your Family Health History

During your annual visit to your doctor, you should make them aware of your family's medical history. Many diseases can be passed down through genetics, but if your doctor is aware of them, they can better examine you and help reduce your risk of developing harmful diseases that can cause or lead to vision problems.

For example, some diseases like Type 2 diabetes can be caused by both genetic and environmental factors and can lead to other conditions or diseases like diabetic eye disease, or glaucoma. You can’t control the genetic diseases you are at risk of developing, but you can plan ahead and know what signs and symptoms to look for.

You should do research into your family's health history. This can be done through genetic testing, which gives patients insight into their ancestry, traits, and health to help them take action when it comes to their health. At PartnerMD, we recommend speaking with a genetic counselor before beginning genetic testing, so you can best understand the pros and cons of genetic testing and whether it is right for you.

Unfortunately, many diseases don’t have early warning signs or symptoms. Symptoms often occur later on when the disease has developed. Knowing what you are at risk for genetically can help guide your doctors when examining you. In many cases the earlier you detect a complication, the better your chance of turning it around in the long run.

By informing your doctor of your family health history, they will be able to create a regime specifically for you and your genetic possibilities. They will also have a better idea of what to look for and how to guide you if symptoms do appear.

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Common Vision Impairments

Genes play a highly significant role in eye diseases. There are many ways that your family genetics can cause vision complications, although not all diseases are extremely damaging.

Many eye conditions that can arise solely reduce your vision but do not cause blindness and they can be temporary or long-lasting. In fact, there are more than 350 possible genetic eye diseases that families can be at risk of.

Some common genetically developed conditions include:

  • Myopia: A condition that causes nearsightedness. This condition can make faraway objects appear blurry and can develop gradually over time or very rapidly.
  • Hyperopia: A condition that causes farsightedness. This condition can make objects nearby appear blurry. Reading, writing, and using computers for long periods of time can cause headaches or eye strain.
  • Astigmatism: A type of refractive error. The eye does not focus light evenly on the retina, which causes blurry or disoriented vision at any range. Other symptoms include eye strain, headaches, and trouble driving at night.
  • Strabismus: A condition in which the eyes do not align as they should. It is also referred to as being cross-eyed. Strabismus can lead to Amblyopia or loss of depth perception.
  • Amblyopia: A disorder of vision caused by the brain's failure to process inputs from one eye and favors the other eye over time. Amblyopia can lead to low vision in an eye that otherwise appears normal. It is also referred to as having a lazy eye.

These vision problems are very common and can occur even if you have otherwise healthy vision. However, they can affect your day-to-day activities because you will struggle to see clearly and many of the conditions lead to other symptoms, like headache and eye strain.

If you have a known family health history that includes any of these conditions, or if you’re feeling any of those symptoms, be sure to talk to your doctor. They will likely refer you to an eye doctor for comprehensive and ongoing eye care.

If the eye doctor finds refractive error associated with the conditions listed above they will likely suggest you begin wearing eyeglasses to combat your blurry or distorted vision. Wearing the right prescription eyeglasses can help correct your vision and most eye doctors today allow you to purchase glasses on-site and through their websites or apps.

The right prescription glasses will help correct your vision, but on occasion, your eyesight may continue to deteriorate or irritate you, if that is the case, surgery, such as LASIK, might be necessary as well.

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Serious Eye Diseases

While there are more common vision impairments listed above, some genetic eye problems cause more serious damage to your vision. There are several serious eye diseases that can lead to severe vision loss or blindness if they are not detected and treated immediately. In fact, over 60% of cases of childhood blindness are caused by genetic factors.

Some common genetically developed eye diseases include:

  • Retinal Degeneration: A retinopathy, which consists of the deterioration of the retina caused by the death of its cells.
  • Macular Degeneration: A condition that causes loss in the center of the field of vision. In dry macular degeneration, the center of the retina deteriorates. With wet macular degeneration, leaky blood vessels grow under the retina.
  • Retinitis Pigmentosa: A genetic disorder of the eyes that causes loss of vision. Symptoms include trouble seeing at night and decreased peripheral vision. As peripheral vision worsens, people can experience "tunnel vision".
  • Glaucoma: A group of eye conditions that damage the optic nerve. This damage is often caused by abnormally high pressure in your eye.

Knowing your family health history can save you from vision loss or blindness caused by these eye diseases listed above. Macular degeneration and glaucoma are the leading causes of blindness for people over the age of 60.

Unfortunately, symptoms are delayed, so you can have any of these eye diseases without knowing until later in life. Vision loss can occur gradually over time without notice or so rapidly that you cannot correct it in time. It is important to stay on top of appointments with your primary care physician as they can track issues over time and diagnose and treat illnesses you may develop and determine if they are harmful to the eyes as well.

Due to the fact that most eye diseases go unnoticed for long periods of time, it is important that you know your family health history. Even if your family's history does not include vision problems, there are other diseases that can lead to vision problems as a side effect. Making yourself aware of your health history at your next family gathering will benefit you and generations to come.

More Information on Genetic Testing

While genetic testing can be useful from an eye health perspective, it's a little more tricky overall than you might think. Check out some of our blogs on genetic testing for more information:

You can also find all this information, and more, in our free eBook – “Genetic Testing: Understanding the Basics So You Can Make an Informed Decision.”

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