How Family History Affects Eye Health

Published 05/15/2023
by Heritage Vision Plans

Genetics play a larger role in eye health than you may realize.

It’s not news that many health conditions carry a genetic component. Many of us have grown up aware that we’re at higher risk for serious medical issues, such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s, or some cancers. We may also have seen our parents or grandparents wearing glasses and assumed that someday we, too, would be wearing them. That’s just part of aging, right?

Yes and no. Some eye conditions are age-related, but others are genetic (and some are both). But because corrective lenses are so common, many of us aren’t used to linking them with signs of genetic eye conditions. However, several serious eye diseases do carry a genetic component, and knowing your family history can help with early detection. Here’s what to watch out for.


One of the leading causes of blindness around the world, glaucoma is a disease that causes pressure to build up around the optic nerve, leading to tunnel vision and eventually loss of sight. While the causes are both genetic and environmental, having a family member with the disease can make you four to nine times more likely to develop it as well. The course of progression for your family member can even indicate how the disease might affect your vision as well.

Age-related macular degeneration.

Identifiable by a degradation or loss of vision in the center of your visual field, macular degeneration most often develops with age. If you have a parent or sibling with macular degeneration, you are significantly more likely not just to develop the condition yourself, but to develop the more serious late-stage version. While there is no cure, early treatment can slow symptoms and prevent the condition from worsening.

Diabetic retinopathy.

Diabetic retinopathy can be a surprise diagnosis for many patients, who may not even realize they are diabetic until their eye doctor performs an eye exam. Nevertheless, diabetic retinopathy, which is caused by damage to tissue at the back of the eye, is a serious condition that can lead to blindness if untreated. Cases that are detected early can be managed along with other diabetic symptoms.

Retinitis pigmentosa.

A degenerative retinal disease, retinal pigmentosa often begins with night blindness and progresses to more serious symptoms. Although there are about sixty different genes linked to the disease, it does follow a dominant inheritance pattern. This means that a copy of the genes only needs to be passed down from one parent for the disease to carry on. Other forms of retinal degeneration also share genetic traits.


Cataracts form when the lens of the eye clouds over. They can occur at any age, and develop slowly over time. Many people with cataracts can get by with glasses for a while, but may eventually need surgery to replace the clouded lens with an artificial, interocular lens. Environmental factors or eye injuries can cause cataracts, but genetics account for over half of cases.

Strabismus, amblyopia, myopia, hyperopia, and astigmatism.

Beyond the above, plenty of common eye conditions carry a genetic component. These include strabismus (crossed eyes), amblyopia (wandering eyes), myopia (nearsightedness), hyperopia (farsightedness), and astigmatism (irregular curvature of the cornea). While less serious, these conditions will require corrective lenses to improve treatment. Parents should be aware of their family history and keep a lookout for signs in their children, as undiagnosed vision struggles are sometimes behind a child’s difficulties in school.

Eye conditions can be symptoms of other inherited diseases as well.

There are genetic diseases that affect vision, and then there are eye conditions that are symptoms of other genetic diseases. For instance, multiple sclerosis can be detected from damage to the optic nerve, Parkinson’s disease can cause ocular tremors, and rheumatoid arthritis can cause inflammation of the sclera (the whites of the eye). High blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes can also be detected through a routine eye exam. If you have a family history of any of these diseases, your eye doctor might be the first person to spot the signs.

Ask your family about their history, and tell them about yours.

Before you sign up for any genetic testing, do the simpler thing and talk to your relatives about their eye health. If your family does carry some of these genes, it is likely that it will have shown up by now in a parent, grandparent, sibling, aunt, uncle, or cousin. A family member with one of these conditions doesn’t mean you yourself will get it, but it can help you keep an eye out for early signs.

The surest way to detect a serious eye disease early is to maintain your annual eye exams. You should also share your family history with your eye doctor, who will be able to offer more specific advice depending on your risk level. And, of course, if you do develop a condition, let your family know so they can be on the lookout, too!

That said, a lack of family history doesn’t mean you’re in the clear! Many conditions are environmental as well as genetic, and it’s also possible that a genetic condition has gone undetected in your family for a few generations. Regular eye exams can ensure that none of these diseases has a chance to creep up on you and catch you off guard. So, make the most of your vision benefit and schedule an eye exam today!