Macular degeneration is an eye disease that progressively diminishes central vision. The condition is also known as age-related macular degeneration because it occurs most commonly in individuals who are 55 or older.
Macular degeneration affects approximately 15 million Americans and has no cure. However, people with the condition do have treatment options available, and early detection of the disease plays an important role in how effective those treatments are.
Learn more about this eye disease below.
Risk Factors for Macular Degeneration
Doctors cannot predict who will develop macular degeneration until they diagnose the condition. But research has revealed several factors that affect a person’s risk for the disease:
- Age. Macular degeneration primarily occurs in people who are 55 or older.
- Race. This condition is most common in Caucasians.
- Family history. Individuals whose parents or grandparents had macular degeneration are at higher risk for the disease.
- Smoking. People who smoke are twice as likely to develop the condition.
- High blood pressure. At least one study indicates a link between high blood pressure and the development of macular degeneration.
As this list shows, some risk factors for macular degeneration are related to lifestyle choices. People who exercise, avoid smoking, and eat a healthy diet can minimize their risk for macular degeneration.
Diagnosis of the Condition
In the early stages of macular degeneration, an affected individual will have little to no noticeable vision changes. In the intermediate stage, vision becomes blurry or dark, especially in the center of the person’s field of view. Individuals may also experience changes in how they perceive color.
Even before symptoms become evident, an ophthalmologist can detect the disease with a dilated eye exam. The doctor dilates the patient’s eyes and examines the inside of the eye for yellow deposits called drusen.
To diagnose macular degeneration, an eye doctor may use other tests. For example, the eye doctor will most likely ask the patient to look at an Amsler grid. This grid contains lines that appear wavy or invisible to those with macular degeneration.
Macular degeneration comes in two forms:
- Dry macular degeneration is more common. Drusen develop on the eye layer called the macula, leading to distorted vision and eventually blind spots.
- Wet macular degeneration occurs in approximately 10% of diagnosed patients. This form has the same characteristics as the dry from, but in addition, blood vessels beneath the macula exhibit abnormal growth that further distort vision and cause scarring in the eye.
Neither dry nor wet macular degeneration causes total blindness, and in some patients, the condition occurs only in one eye.
Once an eye doctor diagnoses a patient with macular degeneration, that person and his or her close loved ones should aim to understand treatment options carefully. As mentioned above, macular degeneration has no cure at this time, but doctors and researchers have uncovered effective treatments that can slow the disease’s progression.
In the early stages, patients should practice a healthy lifestyle and make regular visits to their eye doctor.
During the intermediate and late stages, when vision changes begin to appear, treatment options include the following:
- Nutritional supplements. Clinical testing at the National Eye Institute revealed that a special combination of vitamins and minerals slows the progression of macular degeneration. The supplement combination is commonly known as AREDS and contains zinc, copper, and vitamins C and E. Always consult with your eye doctor or another medical professional before taking supplements to treat macular degeneration.
- Injections. Once a patient develops the wet form, an eye doctor can inject a medication into the eye that treats abnormal blood vessel growth.
- Laser surgery. This treatment also applies only to patients with wet macular degeneration. An eye doctor uses a laser to destroy the abnormal blood vessels that develop under the macula.
These are the basic treatments for macular degeneration at this time. Patients who have the condition should discuss their specific options with their eye doctor.
Support for People With Macular Degeneration
Because most people rely on their vision to perform everyday tasks, a diagnosis of macular degeneration can have emotional consequences in addition to the physical symptoms it brings. Consequently, many patients find it helpful to have a support team.
A support team for someone with macular degeneration may include:
- Close friends
- Occupational therapists
- Social workers
- Orientation and mobility specialists
- Certified low vision therapists
With the assistance of loved ones and professionals familiar with the condition, many people with macular degeneration can maintain their independence, even with vision loss.
Get Checked for Macular Degeneration
This eye condition is not curable, but it is treatable, and early detection matters. Make regular visits to your eye doctor, especially if you have any risk factors for macular degeneration. At your appointment, ask any additional questions you have about this common eye disease.