The eyes have it . . . unfortunately. We’re seeing more and more people with macular degeneration as the population ages, and the Macular Degeneration Foundation gives some alarming statistics about the disease. According to the foundation, a new case is diagnosed every three minutes in the United States. The older a person is, the greater his or her chances are of developing the disease, and the prevalence of the disease doubles from 1 in 6 people between the ages of 55 and 64 to 1 in 3 people over the age of 75. As we care for an aging population and as we age ourselves, it’s important to know what age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is and what can be done to prevent or limit the disease. Though researchers are looking into treatments and a cure, there is no cure for the disease right now.
There are two types of macular degeneration and three stages of the disease process. The human eye has many parts that work together to transform light rays into an optical image. The retina is the part of the eye that translates these light rays into electrical impulses sent to the brain, and, if the central part of the retina—the macula—is damaged, a person has macular degeneration. In the dry form of the disease—the most common form, the macula has yellow deposits called drusen. These deposits may distort vision, and, in more advanced stages of the disease, the light-sensing nerve tissue may begin to thin and not work properly. People who have wet macular degeneration, which is less common but may affect vision more drastically, have an abnormal growth of blood vessels underneath the macula that can leak blood and fluid into the retina and cause distorted vision. Having the dry form can lead to wet macular degeneration. The three stages are early (patients may not experience any vision problems), intermediate (patients may have minor vision loss without noticeable symptoms), and late (patients experience noticeable vision loss).
Knowing that there’s no cure for the disease, and knowing that the number of people affected by AMD will continue to increase as the number of people over age 65 increases, what else should you know about AMD? First, there are some risk factors other than age. The disease does appear to be hereditary in nature, so genetic factors come into play, but the disease also appears to have non-hereditary risk factors as well.
- Caucasians are more prone to develop macular degeneration.
- Smokers are more prone to develop macular degeneration.
- The disease is more common among females.
- The disease is more common among those with light-colored eyes and those having fair skin.
- High blood pressure and high cholesterol are also among the risk factors for developing AMD.
While you obviously cannot change all these risk factors, some are within your control. Recommended lifestyle changes to help prevent the onset of macular degeneration include not smoking or being around second-hand smoke and eating a healthy, low-cholesterol diet. WebMD outlines several other ways to improve overall eye health, including wearing sunglasses to protect against harmful rays, getting the right nutrition for vision health, using protective eyewear when needed, monitoring time spent looking at computer screens, and, probably the most important of all—having an eye exam on an annual basis. The eye exam will help detect vision issues, including signs of AMD, before they become noticeable problems.
Don’t forget to schedule that eye exam this year! And be sure to encourage older loved ones to continue having eye exams annually even if they aren’t noticing any immediate problems. To find out more about macular degeneration, its effects, and treatments, visit WebMD, the American Macular Degeneration Foundation, and the Macular Degeneration Foundation.