As we age, we are increasingly likely to develop issues with our eyes. For some, this may be as simple as losing a little sharpness of detail – which, after an eye exam to rule out other possibilities, may be addressed as easily as getting a new pair of prescription lenses or corrective contact lenses. For others, however, the degradation of sight with age carries far heavier implications.
One ocular condition that is both extremely harmful to vision and extremely common as we get older is age-related macular degeneration, or AMD for short. With February being National AMD Awareness Month, now is the perfect time to learn about the condition, its effects and your probability of having it develop.
What is Age-Related Macular Degeneration?
AMD is an eye condition characterized by progressive damage to the retina that causes an individual’s central vision to deteriorate. While the progression of age-related macular degeneration can be slowed and sometimes even halted completely by certain treatments, the damage it has already done to central vision up to that point is irreversible.
Dry Macular Degeneration
There are two types of AMD. The first type is called dry form. This form is the more common version, and accounts for about 80 percent of all AMD cases, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Dry age-related macular degeneration occurs when the parts of the macula begin to thin, allowing the development of tiny clumps of protein known as drusen. While drusen are not the cause of AMD, their presence is often a predictor that the condition may develop. However, once the condition does develop, individuals affected will begin to lose central vision.
Wet Macular Degeneration
While much less common, the second form – neovascular or wet age-related macular degeneration – is substantially more serious. This type is characterized by the growth of new, abnormal blood vessels underneath the retina that may leak blood or other fluids, which can cause scarring on the macula. This scarring often results in individuals losing their central vision at a more rapid pace than they would with the dry form.
Since both forms of AMD may not cause immediate symptoms, it is important to schedule regular eye exams with your doctor to look for any early indication of AMD – or other vision health issues.
Who is at Risk?
As is the case with many ocular conditions, age is the most common risk factor for AMD. In fact, the National Eye Institute says that AMD is a leading cause of irreparable vision loss in Americans over 50 years old. There are as many as 11 million people in the United States living with some form of age-related macular degeneration, according to the BrightFocus Foundation, and while anyone may develop the condition, there are certain genetic and lifestyle factors that are suspected to play an increased role in its development and progression.
People who eat a diet high in saturated fats such as meat, cheese and butter, are overweight, smoke or have hypertension, high cholesterol or heart disease may be at a higher risk of developing AMD. In addition, individuals with a family history of AMD are more likely to develop the condition, as are Caucasian people, females and those with light-colored irises.
A few ways to lower your risk are closely related to these lifestyle habits. Getting regular exercise and eating healthy food including leafy green vegetables can help you lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and maintain a healthy weight, therefore reducing your risk. Another way to reduce risk is to quit smoking or refrain from starting if you haven’t yet.
Is Macular Degeneration Genetic?
The American Academy of Ophthalmology reports that organizations that map and study human genomes have identified over 30 genes that are associated with the risk of age-related macular degeneration development. Despite the number of genes with a supposed relationship with this condition, two genes stand out in particular to researchers.
The first is the presence of a group of genes on some individuals’ chromosome 1 called the complement cascade. The second is the presence of the ARMS2/HTRA gene on chromosome 10.
Having these particular genetic variations does not make it certain that an individual has or will develop AMD, but it does present an increased risk that they will develop it in the future and makes the above-mentioned shifts in lifestyle habits even more necessary for prevention to be possible.
Diagnosing Macular Degeneration
The progression of the age-related macular degeneration is also different for every person affected. This means that while some individuals with early AMD don’t notice any loss of central vision for a long time, others may notice a more immediate onset of symptoms. This can lead to delays in being properly diagnosed.
Following a comprehensive dilated eye exam to look for any abnormalities in your retina or macula, if your doctor suspects AMD, he or she may ask you to look at something called an Amsler grid. This grid is designed to help identify any blurry, distorted, or blank spots in your field of vision that could indicate vision loss.
Your ophthalmologist may also opt for a test called a fluorescein angiogram. This procedure injects a dye into the bloodstream and can be used to identify whether or not new blood vessels are growing or have grown under the retina, a telltale sign of wet AMD.
Although there is promising genetic and medication-based research being done, no treatments have yet been identified for early AMD. If diagnosed with an early form of the disease, you may be able to slow its effects by making the lifestyle changes mentioned above, while also having your eye doctor intermittently check in on your vision to make sure it is not rapidly progressing.
For individuals diagnosed with intermediate or late dry age-related macular degeneration, there are certain dietary supplements of vitamins and minerals that may slow or even stop the worsening of vision, although this will not reverse the damage that has already been done.
If you are diagnosed with intermediate or late wet AMD, however, there are additional treatment options that may be able to stop further vision loss. The American Academy of Ophthalmology discusses medicines called anti-VEGF – anti-vascular endothelial growth factor –drugs that were first introduced in 2005 and can be injected directly into an individual’s eyes. These drugs, while uncomfortable to have administered due to the nature of eye injections and the frequency at which they must be applied, are able to stabilize or even improve vision for the vast majority of patients.
Worried About Age-Related Macular Degeneration?
Age-related macular degeneration is just one of the many ocular conditions that are common among the aging population. If you have been experiencing issues with vision, the retina doctors at the Ross Eye Institute can help. Contact the Ross today to schedule an appointment at any one of our three convenient Western New York locations by calling 716.881.7900.