What Is Macular Degeneration?
While conditions like cataracts and glaucoma are more talked-about, macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss in the United States. Macular degeneration affects more than 10 million Americans – more than cataracts and glaucoma combined. While this condition isn’t curable, treatment can help. And learning the symptoms and managing certain risk factors can help you prevent macular degeneration.
Macular degeneration occurs when a small section of the retina, called the macula, becomes damaged. This damage in the retina results in a loss of central vision. This means the center of the “picture” your eyes are viewing is lost due to damage in the macula, while your peripheral or “side” vision remains normal.
Imagine looking at a person’s face, for instance. With normal vision, all the features of the face would be present – eyes, nose, mouth, ears, hair, etc. When suffering from macular degeneration, however, the picture is much different. While your peripheral vision would allow you to see the ears, hair, and perhaps the chin of that person’s face, the damaged macula in the retina would mean the center of the face wouldn’t be visible.
Types of Macular Degeneration
There are two fundamental types of macular degeneration – atrophic and exudative. These are more commonly referred to as “dry” (atrophic) and “wet” (exudative). Upwards of 85% of all macular degeneration cases are of the “dry” type. Another rarer form of macular degeneration found in young people is called Stargardt Disease, and is caused by a recessive gene.
Dry macular degeneration occurs when parts of the macula become thinner with age, and a microscopic yellowish protein called drusen begins to grow. As the drusen thickens over time, central vision begins to fade.
Wet macular degeneration is much less common, but can be more serious. This condition is caused by new, abnormal blood vessels begin to grow underneath the retina. Because of these malformations, blood or other fluids could begin to leak behind the retina, causing scars to form on the macula. While vision loss occurs more quickly with wet macular degeneration than with dry macular degeneration, most people don’t realize they have the condition until their vision becomes very blurry.
There are 3 basis stages of age-related macular degeneration:
Early Stage AMD – many people experience no vision loss in the early AMD stage. However, this underscores the importance of regular eye exams. Particularly if one or more risk factors (see below) are present. Your eye health professional can diagnose early AMD by the presence of drusen.
Middle or Intermediate Stage AMD – in this stage, most people experience some degree of vision loss, but the symptoms still may not be very noticeable. Because of this, any change or loss in vision shouldn’t be ignored.
Late Stage AMD – by the time late stage AMD develops, vision loss has become noticeable. If you notice any sudden or gradual changes in vision, call your optometrist right away to schedule an evaluation.
Macular Degeneration Risk Factors
The largest risk factor for the development of macular degeneration is age. As parts of the body begin to weaken or change with age, the risk of developing eye conditions like AMD is increased. Macular degeneration is most common in adults age 55 and older.
However, age is not the only risk factor. A family history of macular degeneration means a higher risk of developing the disease. Other genetic factors like race are also increase risk, as Caucasians are more likely to develop macular degeneration than other races. Environmental and lifestyle factors such as regular prolonged exposure to sunlight, smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and poor diet also increase the risk of developing macular degeneration.
With macular degeneration, prevention is key. Quitting smoking, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol to healthy levels, eating a healthy diet including fish and green leafy vegetables, maintaining a healthy weight, and wearing UV protecting sunglasses when outdoors can reduce your risk of developing AMD.
For more information about macular degeneration, or if you’ve begun to experience symptoms of vision loss, call one of our offices today. Schedule your premium eye exam with one of our independent Doctors of Optometry. Call 239.263.6677 to reach our Downtown Naples Optical location, or call 239.353.8794 for Naples Optical Too on Pine Ridge near the Vineyards.