Take a Closer Look at Macular Degeneration

Macular degeneration is an eye disease that affects more than 10 million Americans, according to the American Macular Degeneration Foundation. It has treatments — but no cure — and is the leading cause of vision loss, surpassing cataracts and glaucoma combined.

Your macula is the center part of the retina, the back layer of your eye that records images and sends them through the optic nerve to your brain. The macula focuses central vision in your eye, allowing you to read, drive, recognize faces and distinguish color. 

Macular degeneration occurs more often in Caucasians than in African-Americans or Hispanics/Latinos. Others more likely to develop macular degeneration include women, people age 55 and older, smokers, and those who have a family history of macular degeneration. 

You can lower your risk of macular degeneration by maintaining a healthy weight, controlling your blood pressure and cholesterol level, and practicing a heart-healthy lifestyle to avoid cardiovascular disease. 

Symptoms

In its earliest and intermediate stages, macular degeneration may not have any effect on your vision. If it progresses, however, it affects what you see as you look straight ahead. It can impair your ability to read, drive, watch TV or do close-up work.

Symptoms may include:

  • Inability to see objects or colors clearly
  • Difficulty recognizing familiar faces
  • Seeing straight lines as wavy or crooked 
  • Having a dark, empty area or blind spot appear in the center of your vision

Basic vision tests, pupil dilation and imaging of the eye and its blood vessels all can be helpful in diagnosing macular degeneration. During an eye exam, your doctor may notice yellow deposits in your retina called drusen or pigment changes beneath your retina. Both can signal macular degeneration. 

You can lower your risk of macular degeneration by maintaining a healthy weight, controlling your blood pressure and cholesterol level, and practicing a heart-healthy lifestyle.

Types of Macular Degeneration

Macular Degeneration small

There are two types of macular degeneration that occur during late stages of the disease:

  • Dry macular degeneration, also called “geographic atrophy,” is the most common and occurs gradually when light-sensitive cells in the macula and tissue beneath the macula break down and cause vision loss.
  • Wet macular degeneration, also called “neovascular” — which means “new vessels” — results when abnormal blood vessels grow underneath the retina, leaking fluid and blood that can damage the macula. Vision damage can be quick and severe.

Treatments for Macular Degeneration

Little can be done if you have early-stage macular degeneration. If you have reached an intermediate stage in both eyes or advanced stage in one eye, your doctor may recommend certain high-dose vitamins and minerals to slow disease progression. These may include lutein, zeaxanthin, vitamin C, vitamin E and zinc.

There are no other treatments for dry macular degeneration.

For the wet type, your eye doctor can numb your eye and inject medicines to stop or slow the growth of abnormal blood vessels. In some cases, laser surgery can seal the leaking blood vessels that are damaging your macula.

If macular degeneration has damaged your vision, ask your eye doctor about devices to enhance your ability to see or services to assist you with everyday activities.

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