Macular degeneration is a common eye condition and a leading cause of vision loss among people age 55 and older. In the United States it affects more than 10 million Americans. It causes damage to the macula, a small spot near the center of the retina and the part of the eye needed for sharp, central vision, which lets us see objects that are straight ahead. Macular degeneration by itself does not lead to complete blindness. However, the loss of central vision in macular degeneration can interfere with simple everyday activities, such as the ability to see faces, read, write, drive, or do close work, such as cooking or fixing things around the house.
Age is a major risk factor for macular degeneration, which is also known as age-related macular degeneration (AMD). The disease is most likely to occur after age 50, but it can occur earlier. Other risk factors for macular degeneration include:
- Smoking. Research shows that smoking doubles the risk of AMD.
- Race. AMD is more common among Caucasians than among other ethnicities.
- Family history. People with a family history of AMD are at higher risk.
There are different stages of macular degeneration and there are two types of AMD – the wet and dry form. The dry form is more prevalent than the wet form, with about 90 percent of AMD patients diagnosed with dry AMD. The wet form of the disease usually leads to more serious vision loss. No FDA approved treatments are available for dry macular degeneration. However, according to studies – Age Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS; 2001) and a follow-up study called AREDS2 (2013) – nutritional supplements containing antioxidant vitamins and multivitamins that also contain lutein and zeaxanthin can reduce the risk of dry AMD progressing to sight-threatening wet AMD. For patients with wet AMD there is no cure and the condition may progress even with treatment. The therapies to slow the progression of wet AMD include injecting drugs into the eye, photodynamic therapy, and laser surgery.
Patients with macular degeneration can also end up with low vision. Having low vision means that even with regular glasses, contact lenses, medicine, or surgery, you find everyday tasks difficult to do. Reading the mail, shopping, cooking, and writing can all seem challenging. However, help is available. You may not be able to restore your vision, but low vision services can help you make the most of what is remaining. Low vision specialists have different tools to help patients deal with vision loss. The key is to not delay use of these services.
AMD has few symptoms in the early stages, so it is very important to have your eyes examined regularly. If you are at risk for AMD because of age, family history, lifestyle, or some combination of these factors, you should not wait to experience changes in vision before getting checked for AMD. In addition to a comprehensive dilated eye exam the best way to protect your eyes from developing early dry macular degeneration is to eat a healthy diet rich in green, leafy vegetables and fish, exercise regularly, avoid smoking, maintain normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and wear sunglasses that protect your eyes from the sun’s harmful UV rays.