What Is Macular Degeneration? Causes, Symptoms & Treatments
Macular degeneration is a serious eye disease that causes central vision loss. It can appear without any noticeable symptoms.
The condition is incurable and may have a major impact on day-to-day activities. But treatments can help slow the progress of some variants of the condition.
So, what is macular degeneration exactly, how is it treated, and can you prevent it? In this post, we explain everything you need to know about macular degeneration.
Macular Degeneration Explained
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) occurs when the macula thins with age or becomes damaged by the growth of abnormal blood vessels.
Located in the back of the eye, at the center of the retina, the macula is responsible for the sharpest vision. It enables us to read, use a computer, or recognize a face.
Macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss in older adults, according to AMDF. It affects over 10 million Americans. A variant of the condition known as Stargardt disease may also occur in young people.
More than vision loss, AMD can affect your independence, mobility, and daily life. AMD is associated with depression and cognitive decline. It’s diagnosed through a dilated eye exam.
Types of Age-Related Macular Degeneration
Dry or atrophic AMD occurs when cells in the macula become thinner with age. Drusen, or tiny protein clumps, may also form behind the retinal pigment epithelium, a smooth layer of cells under the retina.
Dry AMD usually develops slowly. It accounts for about 80% of macular degeneration cases, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Wet or neovascular AMD occurs when abnormal blood vessel growth at the back of the eye damages the macula. Fluid may leak from the blood vessels, leading to the scarring of the macula.
Less common than the dry variant of the disease, wet AMD causes rapid vision loss. Eye injections and photodynamic therapy can help slow down its progress. Dry AMD may turn into wet AMD.
AMD Risk Factors
Science has not yet uncovered the exact macular degeneration cause. The condition has both genetic and environmental risk factors.
According to the US National Institutes of Health and other sources, the key eye macular degeneration risk factors are:
- being over 50
- having a history of AMD in the family
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol levels
- being overweight
- high intake of saturated fat
- heart disease
Being Caucasian or Asian also increases the risk of AMD.
Macular Degeneration Symptoms
The symptoms and signs of macular degeneration vary depending on the stage of the condition. It’s possible to get AMD in one eye only, though having it in one eye increases the risk of developing it in the other as well.
- Early AMD – In its first stage, AMD often has no symptoms, though some people find it more difficult to adapt their vision to dark surroundings.
- Intermediate AMD – Common symptoms include difficulties seeing in low light and mild blurriness at the center of your vision. However, you may have intermediate AMD without any symptoms.
- Late AMD – Symptoms include a blurry area near the center of vision which may become enlarged, straight lines becoming crooked or wavy, blank spots, difficulties seeing in low light, and faded colors.
Good to know: Not everyone with macular degeneration develops late AMD.
Macular Degeneration Diagnosis
Eye doctors will check for macular degeneration as part of a regular eye exam. More specifically, they will carry out a dilated eye exam.
They will put some eye drops into your eyes to widen your pupil. This enables them to view the internal parts of your eye, including the retina, and look for signs of AMD.
Eye doctors will also ask you to look at an Amsler grid, which is a checkered grid with a dot in the center. If you have AMD, you may see distorted or missing lines in the grid.
Optical coherence tomography (OCT) may also help diagnose AMD. During this test, your eye doctor will use a special machine to take photos inside your eye.
Another test that can help eye doctors diagnose wet AMD is fluorescein angiography. For this test, your doctor will inject fluorescein, a yellow die, into a vein. They will then use a camera to take photos of the retina and look for any abnormal blood vessel growth under it.
Macular Degeneration Treatment
Macular degeneration cannot be cured at this point. Treatments aim to slow down the progression of the disease. Dry AMD and wet AMD are each treated differently.
For dry AMD, treatment begins in the intermediary stage of the condition. It consists of a combination of dietary supplements that include:
For wet AMD, treatments include anti-VEGF drug injections in the eye, laser treatment, or a combination of these (photodynamic therapy).
Macular Degeneration Prevention
Studies show that you can reduce the risk of macular degeneration. The most important AMD prevention strategies include:
- Exercise regularly
- Maintain a healthy body weight
- Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from UV light
- Keep blood pressure and cholesterol levels in check
- Don’t smoke
- Eat a balanced diet rich in nutrients
- Eat leafy greens, berries, yellow fruits and vegs, and fish
Tip: You can use the Amsler grid to test your vision every day. Cover your eyes by turns and look at the dot in the center of the grid. Seeing any distortions in the grid may be a sign of AMD.
Keeping Your Eyes Healthy
Going for an eye exam regularly is the best way to catch AMD early, especially after 50. Schedule an eye exam at least once a year or more often according to your eye doctor’s recommendation. You can also use an Amsler grid to test your eyes at home for AMD.
Just as important as regular testing is being physically active and eating an eye-healthy diet. Preventing AMD is better than having to treat it.
Don’t forget to test your eyes for other, more common eye conditions, such as dry eyes. Dry eyes can affect day-to-day activities including working and reading.
Our quick and easy online dry eye test can help you find out whether you may have the condition.