What is Age-Related Macular Degeneration?

If a loved one is stricken with blindness, you may have a lot of questions. This is only natural, since blindness is a bit of a fuzzy term. In fact, the National Federation of the Blind considers blindness to be when your sight is bad enough, even with corrective lenses, that you need alternative methods to engage in activities that normal-sighted people wouldn’t need. Alternatively, the World Health Organization lists blindness at the top of the vision impairment scale with distinct measurements. Whatever definition you go by, blindness and vision impairment can be massively debilitating.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 3.4 million Americans who are 40 or older are either legally blind or visually impaired. That’s a massive chunk of the population with a large burden that they have to deal with every day, and that number is predicted to double by 2050. With October being Blindness Awareness Month, we wanted to look at the most common cause of visual impairment and blindness in seniors, whether it’s preventable, and how you can treat it. Hopefully, by working with a physician, you and your loved one can find solutions for any visual impairment you may face.

It’s estimated that over 10 million Americans may have macular degeneration in some form. Over time, part of your retina called the macula can become damaged, which can impair your central vision and ability to see fine details. When this happens, it’s called age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

Unlike some vision impairment conditions that can cause generalized blurriness, like cataracts, macular degeneration is much more localized and specific to the center of your vision. This visual impairment may be present as a black or empty spot in your vision or as a blurry patch, but it will generally be centralized. In some cases, AMD may even distort your ability to see color and light. In other instances, AMD can twist your perception of straight lines, as though you’re viewing objects through a liquid.

Since some of these symptoms are shared with other visual diseases, so it’s wise to visit your doctor if you’re noticing any of these signs. Your physician or eye doctor may be able to run some tests to diagnose whether you have macular degeneration or another vision impairment condition.

The Two Types of AMD

There are two forms of AMD, dry and wet. Dry AMD tends to be an early stage of age-related macular degeneration and refers to deposits, called drusen, that develop in the macula, leading to visual impairment as they develop. As we age, the macular tissue thins and deposits the drusen in the macula. Luckily, the vision loss associated with dry AMD is often minimal in the early stages, though it can worsen. One study found that a drusen deposit was present in over 95 percent of the population, with the higher frequencies for older age groups.

Of the two, wet AMD is rarer but more severe. This form of the condition is characterized by blood vessels under the macula leaking blood and fluid into the retina. In the early stages, this can distort vision your vision and cause blind spots. Eventually, as the condition worsens, it can cause scarring on the retina, leading to permanent vision loss in the center of the eye.

Can You Prevent or Slow It?

While we’re not entirely certain of what causes AMD, and some factors aren’t preventable, there are ways you can lower your chances of developing AMD. Unfortunately, four of the most prominent factors that may lead to AMD, including your family history, gender (women are more likely to develop it), race (Caucasians are more likely than other races), and age (the older you are the larger your chances), can’t be changed. However, eating a healthy diet, exercising, and not smoking may all help lower your risk of AMD.

Treatment Options

Unfortunately, there is no cure for dry or wet macular degeneration, but certain treatments can slow or prevent further damage. Your doctor can give you anti-angiogenic medication, which can stop blood vessels from forming in your eye and prevent from leaking fluids. Laser therapy may also help treat macular degeneration. Finally, the National Eye Institute found that taking a vitamin supplement of vitamin C and E, beta-carotene, and zinc significantly lowered chances of AMD advancing to more severe cases.

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Blindness can be a life-altering condition, and with age-related macular degeneration being such a prominent cause, it’s worth understanding some of the complexities of the condition. Specifically, if you know what symptoms to watch for and why you should be on the lookout, you’ll be more likely to catch it before it causes permanent damage to your eyesight.