Macular degeneration, also called age-related macular degeneration (AMD), is a disease that causes vision loss. According to the Cleveland Clinic, this is the most common cause of vision loss in Americans over the age of 50. (Cleveland Clinic) This condition occurs slowly, which is one reason that many people simply attribute it to aging.
Although patients suffering from AMD may not experience total blindness, they can lose a large amount of their central vision. People with macular degeneration can still see through their side vision, also known as peripheral vision.
When macular degeneration is caught early, proper treatment can decrease the vision loss that this condition brings about.
AMD occurs when the macula in the eye is damaged. The macula is the central component of the retina that can distinguish light sources to help you see clearly. When cells within the macula are destroyed, the eye can’t distinguish details as well.
The macula helps in your ability to:
- see people
- notice small objects
Macular degeneration, while not inevitable, is primarily associated with aging. According to the American Health Assistance Foundation (AHAF), 3.8 percent of Americans between 50 and 59 years old have intermediate or advanced AMD, while 14.4 percent of those between 70 and 79 are affected. (AHAF)
However, there are other risk factors besides age that can increase the likelihood of AMD. These include:
- a sedentary lifestyle
- race (Caucasians are more susceptible to AMD)
- lack of nutrition
There are two types of AMD: dry (atrophic) and wet (exudative).
Dry AMD is the early-to-intermediate stage of macular degeneration. This is the most common form of the eye disease. Slight vision changes can occur, but many individuals either don’t notice any symptoms or simply attribute any symptoms they experience to aging.
Wet AMD is the most severe and advanced form of macular degeneration. It eventually leads to vision loss. According to the National Eye Institute (NEI), roughly 10 percent of people with macular degeneration have the wet form. (NEI) In this form of macular degeneration, abnormal blood vessels grow beneath the macula and retina, and can destroy healthy cells. The vessels also have a tendency to swell and burst, scarring the retina as a result.
If you have wet AMD, you might notice subtle to significant vision changes. For instance, you might see wavy lines or dark spots throughout the day.
Your doctor will diagnose macular degeneration with a combination of X-rays and physical exams. Some ophthalmologists also use an angiogram (a test used for examining blood flow in two parts of the eye: the retina and the choroid) to detect abnormalities in the retina. These tests can determine whether or not you have macular degeneration, as well as the type and stage if degeneration is present.
There are no treatments for dry AMD. Because dry AMD is free of most symptoms, the key at this stage is to prevent wet AMD. Regular exams can determine whether your condition is progressing into wet AMD.
On the other hand, some treatments can help slow vision loss associated with wet AMD. These include:
- laser surgery to destroy abnormal blood vessels within the retina
- anti-vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) injections to prevent abnormal blood vessels
- photodynamic therapy, which uses dye and a low-power laser to seal off damaged blood vessels and help decrease the rate of vision loss
Your physician will prescribe drops to keep your eyes moisturized after treatments. This also helps prevent infections after surgery. It takes three to six weeks to heal after AMD treatments.
According to the NEI a 10-year investigation conducted by the Age-Related Eye Disease Study found that antioxidants and zinc may help reduce AMD. If your eye specialist tells you that you have an increased risk of developing the condition, you might consider taking a multivitamin that contains high levels of vitamins A, C, and E and zinc (NEI).
Regardless of whether you are at increased risk of macular degeneration, annual eye exams are an important tool for early detection of any vision problems you may develop. Additionally, a healthy, active lifestyle helps reduce the chances of developing AMD.
Macular degeneration is a permanent condition. According to the American Macular Degeneration Foundation, the disease is expected to affect 6.3 million by 2030. This is partially due to the aging of the baby boomer population. (AMDF)
Although AMD is chronic, treatment can decrease its severity. Early treatments can help preserve your ability to perform everyday activities, such as reading and driving. When left untreated, macular degeneration can affect both eyes, and vision can worsen. AMD doesn’t hurt, which is one reason people don’t always seek timely treatment.
Later stages of macular degeneration may cause Charles Bonnet syndrome, also called “phantom vision.” This is a temporary condition that leads patients to see things that aren’t really there.
Written by: Kristeen Moore
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD