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Understanding Age-Related Macular Degeneration

Understanding Age-Related Macular Degeneration

Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss in adults over age 50; however, healthy habits can help prevent the condition.

Many of us take our ability to see the world around us for granted. However, if you’ve ever experienced a condition that affects your vision, you quickly understand how essential your eyesight can be for navigating your environment and performing everyday tasks. This is why it is so important to be aware of eye conditions that can compromise your vision, including age-related macular degeneration, which is the leading cause of vision loss in adults over age 50, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

If you or a loved one have been told that you have age-related macular degeneration, you may have many questions about this condition, including how it may affect your vision in the future.

At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, we dedicate ourselves to helping our patients optimize their health so they can enjoy the highest quality of life. This mission includes prioritizing eye health throughout the lifespan. Here’s what you need to know about age-related macular degeneration, including how to live well with the condition if you already have the diagnosis, and what you can do to avoid developing the condition in the future if you do not.

How is the Macula Involved in Vision?

To understand the basics of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), it helps to first review the basic anatomy of the eye. When you look at your own eye in the mirror, see the anterior, or front part, of your eyeball. This section of your eye houses your pupil (the central-most circular part that changes size depending on how bright your environment is), your iris (the colored part of your eye), your cornea (the protective layer overlying your pupil and iris), and the sclera (the white part of the visible eyeball). However, behind these visible parts are numerous other vital eye structures, including the back-most part of your eyeball, known as the retina. In the middle of the retina is a structure known as the macula, responsible for the most specific, central part of your vision.

When your macula is impaired—because its cells deteriorate or because tissue or blood gets in its way—you can lose the central part of your vision. This means that when you look straight ahead, you may see a blurry center while your peripheral vision is preserved. Imagine not being able to see a bullseye in the middle of a target but being able to make out the surrounding rings, and you can understand what it is like to have central vision loss. While the type of central vision loss that occurs with macular disease rarely causes complete blindness, it can severely impact your daily activities, such as reading, driving, or trying to focus on objects.

What is Age-Related Macular Degeneration?

When you have age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the cells of your macula become damaged. There are two types of age-related macular degeneration: wet and dry. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, dry AMD is the most common form, accounting for 8 out of 10 cases.

In dry AMD, your macula thins out as you age, the cells break down, and small protein clumps grow around the macula that impair your central vision. Dry AMD tends to develop very slowly—over years—with three stages: early stage, intermediate stage, and late stage.

The second type of AMD is known as wet AMD, and it is more severe than dry AMD. Wet AMD is always considered to be “late stage.” It happens when new, abnormal blood vessels grow around the macula and leak blood and fluid (hence the name “wet” AMD). This fluid can obscure the macula and impair your central vision.

Regardless of whether you have dry AMD or wet AMD, the condition tends to start in just one eye, though it can eventually develop in your other eye, as well.

Who is Most Likely to Get Age-Related Macular Degeneration?

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is more common in older people, as age greater than 50 years old is a risk factor for its development. Other risk factors can make it more likely for you to develop AMD, too. These include smoking, eating a diet that has an abundance of saturated fats, being overweight, having high blood pressure, having high cholesterol, having heart disease, being Caucasian, and having a family history of the condition. Luckily, when you adopt healthy living steps that are recommended to improve your overall health—such as quitting smoking, being active, striving for an ideal body weight, and eating a healthy diet—these habits can also go a long way toward lowering your risk of developing AMD, too.

What Are the Symptoms of Age-Related Macular Degeneration?

The symptoms of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) can vary depending on the type of AMD (dry or wet), and the stage. In early-stage dry AMD, people have no symptoms at all. As dry AMD progresses to the intermediate or late stages—or wet AMD develops—you may begin to have difficulty seeing in the middle of your visual field, contributing to difficulties recognizing faces, sewing, cooking, reading, and driving, among other activities. You may also struggle to see well in low-light settings, and you may notice that your perception of colors fades or changes slightly. Additionally, you may notice that straight lines appear wavy. If you do not have a diagnosis of AMD, but you have noticed that straight lines appear bent, wavy, or broken, this is a sign that you should see an eye specialist right away.

How is Age-Related Macular Degeneration Diagnosed?

In the early stages of dry AMD, you will have no symptoms at all—however, an eye doctor may still be able to make a diagnosis through a dilated eye exam. This is why it is so important to get regular eye checks that allow an eye specialist to monitor the health of your eye structures.

If you have age-related macular degeneration that is more advanced, you may have difficulties with a general visual acuity test administered by an eye specialist. If an eye specialist suspects you have AMD, he or she may use also use a specific test called an Amsler grid to check the performance of your macula. During this test, you will look at a grid of straight lines. If your macula is damaged by AMD, the lines may appear wavy.

If your eye specialist believes you may have AMD based on your dilated eye exam, your performance on a visual acuity test, or your Amsler grid evaluation, then two other tests may be useful to determine whether you have dry AMD or wet AMD. One test is called an optical coherence tomography (OCT) exam, which allows an eye specialist to examine the thickness of your macula and determine if fluid is leaking. Additionally, a test called fluorescein angiography, in which dye is injected into your bloodstream can help illuminate the blood vessels of your eye to show if there are any that are leaking fluid around your macula.

How is Age-Related Macular Degeneration Managed?

Unfortunately, there are currently no treatments for dry AMD; however, eye specialists encourage people to take certain vitamins and supplements to support the health of their eyes, and this can prevent early dry AMD from getting worse, or from affecting the other eye. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there are treatments available to help stop wet AMD, including medicines that are injected into your eye and laser treatments.

What is the Outlook for Someone with Age-Related Macular Degeneration?

When you have age-related macular degeneration, it may feel discouraging to learn that there is not a cure. However, there are steps you can take to prevent your AMD from getting worse. Some specialists can help you learn to live with central vision loss so that it does not affect your daily life as significantly. This type of vision rehabilitation can help you stay active and live an independent lifestyle, even when you have decreased central vision.

Can Age-Related Macular Degeneration be Prevented?

Age-related macular degeneration affects 11 million adults in the US, and many more people are at risk of developing the condition. Some of the factors that contribute to AMD, such as your age and your family history, are out of your control. However, other factors—such as your diet, your activity level, and habits like smoking cigarettes—are well within your control. By staying proactive with your healthy living habits, and getting regular examinations with your primary care provider and an eye specialist, you can optimize your eye health and reduce your chances of developing central blindness in the future.

Partnering with Lompoc Valley Medical Center to Optimize Eye Health

At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, we understand the utmost importance of vision and eye health, and their key role in maximizing quality of life at every age. To learn more about age-related macular degeneration, or to be screened for eye disease, contact our ophthalmology team at Lompoc Valley Medical Center today.