As you age, your eyes can develop several conditions that cause decreased vision. Most people are familiar with cataracts and the surgery that corrects them. A less well-known type of vision impairment is called age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
WHAT IS AMD?
You probably know the retina is the tissue that lines the inner eye and allows us to see. The “macula” is a small area of cells on the retina that gives us our clearest, sharpest vision when looking straight ahead.
As your eyes age, they may develop accumulations of extra cells called “drusen” underneath the retina. Most people over age 40 naturally develop some drusen in their eyes yet do not develop vision problems. When these drusen deposits become large or hardened, they may damage the cells of the macula. Damage to macular cells can cause your central vision to become blurry or dark.
Age-Related Macular Degeneration is a progressive disease without a cure. In severe cases, it can leave you with only peripheral (side) vision. As you might expect, a lack of central vision can make it impossible to drive, read or perform common tasks.
AMD comes in two types: dry and wet. All AMD begins as “dry,” and it can progress to “wet.” Wet Age-Related Macular Degeneration gets its name from the abundance of extra blood vessels the body creates in the retina to help supply oxygen to damaged macular cells. Wet Age-Related Macular Degeneration causes the most severe type of AMD-related vision loss in older age. Luckily, wet AMD remains fairly rare. While wet AMD cannot be cured, new treatments help stave off the progression of the disease.
RISK FACTORS FOR AMD
AMD can happen to anyone as they age. However, certain risk factors make you more likely to develop AMD. These include:
- Smoking. If you smoke, you can double your chance of developing AMD.
- Race. Caucasians are more likely to get AMD than people of African or Hispanic/Latino descent.
- Family history. If either of your parents (or grandparents) had AMD, you are more likely to also develop the condition.
Researchers have not yet determined for certain if issues like high blood pressure (hypertension) or high cholesterol levels affect whether or not you may develop AMD, but some research hints at a link.
PREVENTION AND TREATMENT OF AMD
Because Age-Related Macular Degenerationcan develop as part of the normal aging process, there is no true way to prevent it. You can minimize your chances of getting AMD by not smoking. Most important, get regular eye exams even if you don’t require vision correction (glasses or contact lenses). During an eye exam, an optometrist or ophthalmologist will take a good look at your retina — and particularly the macula — in order to detect AMD early. Early detection is important to treatment.
Health care professionals usually take a “watchful waiting” approach to the early stage of AMD (dry AMD). You will not require any specific treatment, though your provider may put you on a vitamin supplement that contains key eye nutrients.
If you are diagnosed with dry Age-Related Macular Degeneration, you will need to get a follow-up eye exam every year to make sure the disease doesn’t progress to wet AMD. If you have been diagnosed with dry AMD and notice any sudden changes to your central vision, you should call your eye care professional immediately. Wet Age-Related Macular Degeneration can be treated with medication injections into the eye or with laser therapy. Neither of these treatments can cure wet AMD, but they can slow the progression of the disease.
PROTECT YOUR VISION WITH REGULAR CHECKUPS
If you’re over age 40, you’re at risk of developing Age-Related Macular Degeneration. The loss of vision caused by AMD can occur so gradually you may not know your vision has deteriorated. Since early diagnosis is key to treating Age-Related Macular Degeneration, get annual eye exams. Help your eyes age gracefully so you can enjoy your sight into your later years.