Many people have never heard of the eye condition age-related macular degeneration (AMD). But it's really a common disease. Over a million Canadians have symptoms of macular degeneration. That's more than the amount of people with prostate cancer, breast cancer, Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease—combined. Read on to find out more about macular degeneration. We’ll go over everything you need to know, from risk factors and symptoms to treatment and prevention options.
What Is AMD? Age-related macular degeneration is a common eye condition that leads to vision loss. The condition occurs most often among people 50 or older, but it can affect younger people as well. The condition is marked by damage to the macula, a small area of cells at the back of the eyeball responsible for central vision. The macula contains millions of cells that sense light and provide sharp vision. When the macula becomes damaged, central vision can become blurry, dark, or distorted. There are two types of AMD: dry and wet.
Dry macular degeneration: Doctors estimate that 85–90% of cases of AMD are the dry type. With this type, small yellowish deposits called "drusen" collect in the macula, under the retina. The drusen interfere with the macula's ability to recognize light. Scientists believe the spots come from debris from deteriorating tissue, but they haven't proven this theory for sure.
Wet macular degeneration: This form is rarer. Only 10–15% of cases fall under the wet category. Wet AMD is more serious, as it can result in quicker, more severe vision loss. With wet AMD, blood vessels grow abnormally under the retina. These extra blood vessels contribute to leakage of blood and other fluids, which kill retinal cells. The dead cells result in central vision loss.
What Are the Symptoms of AMD? The primary symptom of macular degeneration is central vision loss. Patients experience different forms of vision loss, including:
Blurred, dark, or distorted areas near the center of vision
Blank spots in central vision
Loss of brightness or clarity in vision
Difficulty adjusting to bright or dim lighting
In some people, the symptoms advance so slowly that they don’t notice vision loss for a long time. Others experience a fast progression of the disease and quickly lose vision in one or both eyes. AMD rarely results in complete blindness. However, the loss of central vision can prohibit patients from doing everyday activities such as reading, driving, writing, and cooking. What Are the Risk Factors for AMD? The biggest risk factor for AMD is age. Most sufferers of the condition begin seeing symptoms between ages 50 and 60, but the condition can occur earlier. Scientists do not know the definitive cause of AMD. But they have identified risk factors of those most likely to develop the condition:
Cardiovascular disease: People who have preexisting heart conditions have a higher likelihood of developing AMD.
Family history: Those who have one or more family member who suffers from AMD have a higher risk of developing the disease.
High cholesterol: People who have elevated cholesterol levels have a higher risk factor for AMD.
Obesity: Those who are already overweight or obese have a higher risk of developing early stage AMD to a more severe form.
Race: Caucasians have a higher risk of developing AMD than Hispanics or African Americans.
Smoking: People who smoke are twice as likely to develop AMD as nonsmokers.
Unhealthy diet: People who don't incorporate many fruits or vegetables into their diet have a higher risk of developing AMD.
How Is AMD Diagnosed? Doctors can diagnose AMD before symptoms appear. Ask your optometrist to conduct a comprehensive dilated eye exam to detect problems before they start. During the dilated eye exam, your optometrist will place drops in your eyes to dilate your pupils. With your pupils dilated, the optometrist has more space to see into the back of your eye. He or she will use a specialized magnifying glass to observe your retina and optic nerve for signs of eye problems, including AMD. The optometrist will check for signs of drusen. Although drusen tend to accumulate as a normal part of the aging process, larger drusen deposits can indicate AMD. Your optometrist may also choose to do other eye tests to detect AMD, such as visual acuity tests or an angiogram. What Treatments Are Available? While there is no cure for AMD, researchers have found that the condition can be slowed to prevent severe vision loss. For those who show no symptoms, there are no treatment options. However, lifestyle changes can slow down the advancement of the disease. Simple steps like maintaining a nutritious diet, developing an exercise routine, and quitting smoking can improve your eye health. If you have early AMD, your optometrist will recommend yearly eye exams to track your progression. For those who have symptoms, researchers have found that certain high-dose vitamins and minerals can slow progression of AMD. Talk to your doctor and optometrist to find out if this course of treatment works in your case. Should You Worry? The short answer is no. If you have any of the risk factors for AMD, schedule an appointment for a dilated eye exam with your optometrist at The Eyewear Place. Regular checkups can help you prevent severe vision loss over time.