Vision loss is a common concern for my patients as they get older, and something that I discuss often with the residents I see at Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Boston. One of the most common causes of vision loss for those over age 60 is age-related macular degeneration (AMD). It accounts for 90 percent of new cases of legal blindness in the U.S. Here’s what you need to know to recognize, prevent, and treat AMD.
Age-related macular degeneration causes damage to the macula, a small spot at the center of the retina. This is the part of the eye that is needed for straight-ahead (central) vision. A person with AMD may experience dimming or distorted vision, blind spots, and at the advanced stage, a loss of central vision. AMD can cause difficulty with everyday activities like driving, reading, writing, and recognizing faces.
In some people AMD advances slowly over time, while others experience vision loss more quickly. It can affect one or both eyes, and the severity can vary.
There are two types of AMD:
Dry AMD, which is most common, results in thinning of the macula. Dry AMD takes many years to develop.
Wet AMD is far less common but more serious. In wet AMD, abnormal blood vessels grow underneath the retina. These blood vessels leak blood and fluid into the retina.
Who is at risk for age-related macular degeneration?
Age is the biggest risk factor, with those over age 60 most affected. Others risk factors include:
- Smoking – research shows that smoking doubles the risk of AMD.
- A family history of AMD.
- Race. AMD is more common among Caucasians than African-Americans or Hispanics/Latinos.
- High blood pressure or cardiovascular disease.
How is age-related macular degeneration treated?
At the early stages of AMD, you may not experience any symptoms. AMD can be detected during a comprehensive eye exam that includes dilating your pupils, along with other simple tests. Treatment depends on if you have dry AMD or wet AMD.
Unfortunately, today there is no treatment available to cure or reverse dry AMD. Vitamin supplements and a diet rich in antioxidant foods may slow progression of the disease.
If you have wet AMD, treatment options include injections to block the growth of new abnormal blood vessels or laser surgery. In some patients these treatments improve vision, and limit progression in many others.
For both types of AMD, low vision aids – such as handheld or video magnifiers, large-print reading materials, talking clocks, and other devices – can help you maintain your independence and keep you enjoying your everyday activities.
Preventing age-related macular degeneration
As the name of the disease implies, the biggest risk factor for age-related macular degeneration is getting older. Since we can’t change that, there are other choices we can make to lower our risk of AMD or slow its progression. Here are some tips:
- Don’t smoke.
- Exercise regularly.
- Maintain normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
- Eat a diet rich in fruit, nuts, fish, and green, leafy vegetables.
- See an ophthalmologist for regular eye exams.