Are you taking all the steps you can to protect your vision as you get older? While macular degeneration may not be as well-known as cataracts and glaucoma, it is the leading cause of significant vision loss for people 50 and older. Because the early stages of this disease often don’t have noticeable symptoms, the best plan to protect your vision is a proactive one.
What is macular degeneration?
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a disease of the retina. The macula, a very small, central portion of this tissue, is essential for the precise vision involved in activities like reading. Beneath the macula is a layer of blood vessels that nourish the tissue. Another tissue layer, the retinal pigment epithelium, moves the nutrients from those blood vessels to the macula and removes cellular waste products.
As you age, the retinal pigment epithelium can become thinner and less effective at delivering nutrients and removing waste. As waste builds up, the macula gets damaged, distorting and diminishing central vision.
There are two forms of the disease—dry AMD and wet AMD. In dry AMD, waste products build up in the lower layers of the retina creating deposits called drusen. This causes gradual loss of the sight in the center of your field of vision. Wet AMD, the more severe form of the disease, involves the overgrowth of blood vessels under the macula that leak fluid or blood, often causing sudden loss of central vision.
Be on guard for subtle vision changes
In its earliest stages, the symptoms of macular degeneration can be subtle. For example, you may need more light to read or colors may appear duller. Other symptoms can include:
• Print that blurs while reading
• Hazy vision
• Blurred or dark spot in the center of your visual field
• Straight lines that look wavy or bent
• Objects look like they are smaller or farther away than they are
• A sudden blind spot in the center of your vision
Risk factors for AMD include a family history of the disease, being female, age, being Caucasian, and light eye color. There are also some risk factors that you can control. To lower your risk:
• Quit smoking
• Maintain a healthy weight
• Eat a diet rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids
• Protect your eyes from the sun with sunglasses and hats
• Keep your cholesterol levels under control
• Work with your physician to prevent heart disease
Treatment options and new treatments in development
Macular degeneration can be detected during an exam with dilation of the pupils, so make an annual eye exam with an experienced ophthalmologist part of your preventive care routine. While there is no cure, there are treatments that can slow the progress of the disease in some cases and, in the case of dry AMD, a treatment that may prevent it from progressing to its most severe form.
There are also several treatments in development or clinical trials:
• Submacular surgery removes abnormal blood vessels and accumulated blood and fluid through a small incision in the eye.
• Limited retinal translocation surgically moves the macula away from the abnormal blood vessels so they can be treated with a laser without damaging the retina.
• A combination of an anti-inflammatory steroid and the blood thinner heparin to inhibit the growth of abnormal blood vessels is being studied.
• The use of an injection of adult stem cells to slow or reverse the effects of early stage AMD is in early trials.
If you’ve been diagnosed with AMD, a health advisor can connect you to ophthalmologists with special expertise treating this disease, as well as provide information on what appropriate clinical trials are available and how to enroll.