Macular degeneration [MAK-yuh-lur dih-jen-uh-REY-shuh n] is vision loss that occurs when the macula is destroyed. The macula is the part of the retina that is used to see objects sharply and clearly. The retina is at the back of the eye, and focuses light for the optic nerve, the part of your eye that turns light into signals that your brain uses to help you see.
Macular degeneration is most common in older people. If you’re over the age of 60 you should have an eye exam every year to check for the warning signs of macular degeneration. People who smoke, are Caucasian (white), or have a family history of macular degeneration are more likely to get the disease.
You can reduce your risk of macular degeneration by exercising, eating a healthy diet, and keeping a healthy blood pressure and cholesterol level. This condition is easier to treat when it’s caught early with a dilated eye exam, so you should see your eye doctor often, especially if you’re part of an at-risk group.
Macular degeneration occurs in stages, and may occur in either one or both of your eyes. You might not have any symptoms or warning signs until the disease is in the later stages and you start to lose your vision, so it’s important to get your eyes tested regularly.
The three stages of macular degeneration are:
- Early. At this stage, protein has started to develop on the retina, but there may be no evidence of vision loss.
- Intermediate. The protein has grown more, and there may be pigment changes in the macula. There can be vision loss at this stage, but the condition still might not show up unless your eyes are checked by an eye doctor.
- Late. At this stage, there is clear damage to the macula that is causing vision loss.
There are two main types of late stage macular degeneration:
- Wet. Wet macular degeneration is less common than dry, but more serious. People with wet macular degeneration have abnormal blood vessels growing under their retina that can scar the eye. Vision can be more damaged than in people with dry macular degeneration.
- Dry. Dry macular degeneration is the most common form of the disease. Dry macular degeneration happens when the macula gets thinner with age. With this condition, central vision is slowly lost.
It’s possible that some people may never get to the later stages of macular degeneration. It is also possible to get to the late stage of macular degeneration in only one eye.
Since macular degeneration is hard to detect, it’s important to see a doctor at least once a year for an eye exam, especially if you are over the age of 60. People who smoke, are Caucasian (white), or have a family history of macular degeneration are more likely to get the disease, so eye exams are especially important if you’re part of one of these groups.
Blurring of vision or pain in the eye can be a sign of macular degeneration or many other eye conditions like glaucoma or cataracts, so you should schedule an appointment with an eye doctor if you have these symptoms.
Macular degeneration is caused by damage to the macula that occurs when a protein grows on the retina. This protein growth is more likely in people who:
- Eat a lot of saturated fat
- Are obese or overweight
- Are over the age of 50
- Have a family history of the condition
- Are white (Caucasian)
A comprehensive eye exam can reveal macular degeneration in the eye. Some tests your eye doctor may do include:
- Visual acuity test. This test checks how well you can see.
- Dilated eye exam. This exam looks inside your eyes to check for the condition.
- Amsler grid. During this test, you look at a special grid and tell the eye doctor what you see. If you have macular degeneration, the lines on the grid might be wavy or even vanish.
- Fluorescein angiogram [floo-RES-ee-in AN-jee-uh-gram]. In this test, a dye is injected into your arm. This dye goes to your eyes, where it can change the color of damaged blood vessels in the eye, letting your doctor see them.
- Optical coherence tomography or (OCT). In this test, your doctor takes pictures of the retina to check for signs of protein growth or blood vessels.
There is currently no treatment for dry macular degeneration. For those in the intermediate or late stages of the condition, a combination of vitamin and mineral supplements may help to slow the advance of the disease.
There is no cure for macular degeneration. Treatment methods are meant to slow the disease, reduce your risk of getting the disease, and preserve your vision for as long as possible.
If you have wet macular degeneration, some treatments can help prevent further loss of vision. Some of these methods include:
- Injections that slow the disease down
- Photodynamic therapy that closes rogue blood vessels in the eye
- Laser surgery that shines an intense beam of light at the blood vessels to destroy them.
These are not cures, but can help prevent more vision loss.
Macular degeneration may be prevented by:
- Eating a diet with lots of leafy green vegetables and fish
- Eating less saturated fat
- Losing weight
- Exercising regularly
- Avoiding smoking
- Keeping healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels
If you already have macular degeneration, taking these steps can help slow the rate of vision loss from this disease.