Most people have heard about glaucoma and cataracts, but there’s another eye disease that senior citizens should know about, especially those of European descent. This is macular degeneration, or damage to the macula, an ultrasensitive part of your retina that gives you sharp focus in the center of your vision. If you develop this condition, you may have trouble driving, reading, recognizing people, or other activities that require fine central vision. You may eventually experience major vision loss. Macular degeneration affects more than 1.75 million Americans and is the leading cause of legal blindness in older Americans. It’s important to know, though, that macular degeneration almost never causes complete blindness. In fact, most patients who have the disease can continue to live productive and independent lives.
There are two basic types of macular degeneration, known as “dry” and “wet.” About 90 percent of all cases are the dry sort, in which the macula has simply grown thin over the years. The dry form progresses very slowly and may never interfere with a person’s life. Many people simply notice that their vision fades a bit when they read. The wet form of macular degeneration is much more serious. In this case, abnormal blood vessels grow beneath the retina and start to leak, creating a pool of blood and other fluids that damages your retina and blocks your vision. Occasionally, a dry case can turn wet. If you have the dry form, see an ophthalmologist immediately if your vision suddenly worsens.
Whether a case is dry or wet, the early symptoms of macular degeneration are the same. Schedule an appointment with an ophthalmologist promptly if you notice any of the following signs:
- Vision becomes fuzzy or blurry
- Straight lines, such as sentences in a book or sides of buildings, start to look wavy
- Blank or dark spots show up in the center of your vision
Who is at risk for macular degeneration?
Age is by far the biggest risk factor for macular degeneration, although some rare forms of the disease can strike at any age. The disease sometimes develops during a person’s forties or fifties, but it’s much more common in people over 60.
Macular degeneration also runs in families, so be on guard if your parents or siblings had the condition. It’s also more common in women, smokers, and people with light-colored eyes. Those with cardiovascular disease also appear to be at higher risk.
The disease is rare among nonwhites. Some experts believe that excess exposure to ultraviolet rays can cause macular degeneration. This risk has not been proven, but a lifetime of sun worship without eye protection will definitely increase your risk of cataracts.
How is macular degeneration diagnosed?
A simple at-home test can help you detect macular degeneration before symptoms set in. You’ll need a special card that features a grid of straight lines with a dot in the center. This card, called a Yannuzzi card, is available from your doctor, and any person older than 50 should have one. Here’s how you use it: With your face 14 inches away from the card, close one eye and look at the dot. (Many people age 50 and older will need to use reading glasses.) If you have macular degeneration, the lines may look wavy, discolored, or otherwise distorted.
Your ophthalmologist will have to look at your retina to confirm a case of macular degeneration. People with the dry form of the disease will have small, round marks called drusen on their macula. If you have the wet form, the ophthalmologist will be able to detect blood vessels growing under your retina.
Can macular degeneration be treated?
There’s no proven remedy for dry macular degeneration once it reaches the advanced stage. However, recent studies suggest that a specific high-dose formulation of antioxidants and zinc can significantly reduce the risk of dry macular degeneration progressing to the advanced stage.
The wet form of the disease can be treated with laser surgery, photodynamic therapy, or injections. Anti-angiogenic medicine is the newest treatment option offered by the well-respected Mayo Clinic. A drug is injected into the affected eye every four to six weeks to prevent the