What role does family history play in vision issues?

family medical history form

Ever wonder why your eye doctor asks about your family medical history? Many eye conditions can be passed on genetically, so vision issues that run in your family are a crucial piece of information. 

Some of the most common vision problems are caused when the shape of our eyes keeps light from focusing properly on the retina, the light-sensitive tissue layer in the back of the eye. 

Since eye shape is often hereditary, these vision problems were likely passed down through your family. 

This type of vision issue is known as a “refractive error.” According to the National Eye Institute, more than 150 million Americans have some kind of refractive error. 

The most common refractive errors are nearsightedness (myopia) — the inability to focus on objects at a distance — and farsightedness (hyperopia) — the inability to focus on objects nearby. 

Other common refractive issues include astigmatism — which can affect focus on objects near or far — and presbyopia — that problem of focusing up close that hits most of us in our 40s and gets worse as we get older. 

All of these vision issues can be passed along genetically.

More serious eye diseases can also be inherited and can often be treated — and even prevented — if caught early. 

Being ready to answer your eye doctor when she or he asks you about your family medical history will help your eye doctor be aware of vision conditions that could affect your own eyes at some point.

Here are frequently asked questions about vision issues that run in families:

Are eye problems hereditary?

Common and potentially serious vision problems often run in the family. Glaucoma is one example. 

Glaucoma is a condition that builds up pressure in your eye and can eventually damage your optic nerve, which sends images to your brain. Left untreated, glaucoma can cause long-term or even permanent loss of vision. 

What are some degenerative eye conditions that are inherited?

At least two degenerative diseases of the retina can be passed on genetically: retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Both impact your vision. 

Two specific genes are known to increase the risk of AMD, a disease that impacts the retina and gets more pronounced as you get older.

What are 5 causes of blindness?

Glaucoma and AMD are the most common causes of blindness in adults, and neither shows up until later in life. If you have a family history of either, your doctor can be on the lookout for warning signs and catch glaucoma or AMD early. 

Cataracts also can develop with age, creating a fogginess of the lens that makes it  increasingly difficult to see clearly. Cataracts aren’t always passed on genetically, but certain inherited conditions can put you more at risk for them. 

Diabetic retinopathy, a complication of diabetes, also can lead to blindness. A genetic mutation can make you susceptible to Type 2 diabetes, so it’s important to report family history to your doctor.

The fifth cause of blindness, retinitis pigmentosa (RP) is a set of inherited diseases that affect the light-sensitive retina, causing progressive vision loss that affects the retina’s ability to respond to light.

What other family history factors affect eyesight?

Do people in your family love the outdoors, tanning, hiking or just soaking up the rays? Do all of your family members, young and old, wear sunglasses?

Sun glare can do a number on your eyes, so remember to wear sunglasses and/or wide brimmed hats when you're outside. 

Do you work odd hours or late into the night? Is this something that your parents and grandparents did? Has your family held high-stress positions through the years?

Stress and lack of sleep also are hard on your eyes. Research shows sleeping less than five hours a night can cause eye dryness and irritation, as well as difficulty focusing.

As you and your children spend more time on your digital devices, know that the worst source of wear and tear on your vision probably comes from staring at computers and smartphones. 

Prolonged screen use can cause blurred vision, according to the American Optometric Association (AOA). AOA recommends closing your eyes periodically and taking frequent breaks to focus on distant objects. We blink less when staring at a screen, so make an effort to blink more to lubricate your eyes. 

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