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What is macular degeneration?

Ray Lin, MD
Radiation Oncology

For people over 50, age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss. About 90% of macular degeneration patients have the dry form, which is caused by deposits on the macula, an area of the retina. The wet form is caused by irregular blood vessel growth. Both of these types can cause significant vision loss, including blindness.

Macular degeneration, a serious condition, is characterized by a loss of central vision that often is associated with problems with reading and, in more advanced stages, difficulty recognizing faces. Macular degeneration is most common among fair-skinned, light-eyed individuals of Northern European heritage. Patients with a family history of age-related macular degeneration should begin having regular eye exams at about age 50 to assess whether they have early signs and might benefit from vitamin supplementation, D. Rex Hamilton, M.D., director of the UCLA Laser Refractive Center, says.

Macular degneration deals with age related changes in the eye. Watch this video to learn more from Dr. Manvi Maker about macular degeneration.

Emilia Klapp
Nutrition & Dietetics
Macular degeneration is a vision-destroying condition that affects 10 million Americans, many of them seniors. One out of five adults between the ages of 60 and 75 develop this disorder. After age 75, one in three people develop it. Sunlight, smoking, and other environmental factors cause free radicals that in turn damage the cells of the macula, part of the retina responsible for fine and detailed central vision. Over time, the macula can deteriorate, causing partial or total loss of vision in both eyes, either simultaneously or separately. Consuming small doses of antioxidants, such as the beta-carotene in carrots, can help the macula protect itself as you age.

Macular degeneration is a disease of the macula — a small area in the retina at the back of the eye. The macula allows you to see fine details clearly and do things such as read and drive. When the macula does not work properly, your central vision can be blurry and have areas that are dark or distorted. Macular degeneration affects your ability to see near and far, and can make some activities — like threading a needle or reading — difficult or impossible.

Macular degeneration is the most common cause of severe vision loss in people older than 50. Macular degeneration is caused by aging and thinning of the tissues of the macula. Vision loss is usually gradual.

Although macular degeneration reduces vision in the central part of the retina, it usually does not affect the eye’s side (peripheral) vision. For example, you may be able to see the outline of a clock but not be able to tell what time it is. Macular degeneration alone usually does not cause total blindness. Even in more advanced cases, people usually continue to have some useful vision and are often able to take care of  themselves. In some cases, macular degeneration may not affect your vision very much. In other cases, however, vision loss may be more rapid and severe.

Macular degeneration alone does not result in total blindness.

If you experience one or more of the following symptoms, have your eyes examined promptly:

  • Words on a page look blurred in the center;
  • Straight lines look distorted, especially toward the center of your vision;
  • A dark or empty area appears in the center of vision;
  • Colors look dim.

There is no proven cure for macular degeneration. In some people who have leaking blood vessels, laser surgery may slow or prevent additional vision loss. Injectable medications may also help to stabilize or improve the condition.

Various low-vision optical devices can help people continue with many of their normal activities. They include:

  • Magnifying devices;
  • Closed-circuit television;
  • Large-print reading materials;
  • Talking or computerized devices.

Your ophthalmologist can prescribe optical devices or refer you to a vision rehabilitation specialist or center. Because side vision is usually not affected, a person’s remaining sight can be very useful. A wide range of support services, rehabilitation programs, and devices are available to help people with macular degeneration maintain a satisfying lifestyle.

As people grow older, a decrease in sight may be due to deterioration of the central area of the retina, called the macula.
The first symptom of macular degeneration is a decrease in visual acuity that cannot be corrected with glasses. A thorough retinal examination is warranted. People with macular degeneration can also experience sudden changes in their vision that cause them to see straight lines as waves. If this occurs, evaluation by an ophthalmologist as soon as possible is recommended, as total loss of central vision is possible. A laser treatment may be necessary to avoid this serious vision complication.
People with macular degeneration do not usually lose their side (peripheral) vision and are able to see well enough to take care of themselves, performing work that does not require keen vision. The ophthalmologist has a number of low vision aids that may enhance the vision that remains and therefore help the person lead a more productive life.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Age-related macular degeneration is the most common reason for vision loss. It comes in two forms: wet and dry.

"Dry" macular degeneration is the more common form. Although the exact cause is unknown, we know that those who smoke and have high blood pressure are most affected by this form of macular degeneration. There are no good treatments for dry macular degeneration, but fortunately it often progresses very slowly.

"Wet" macular degeneration occurs when abnormal blood vessels form under the retina. The vessels eventually leak blood elements and damage the retina.

In some instances, laser treatment can improve or slow the progress of wet macular degeneration. We also know that multivitamins can delay or in some cases prevent early wet macular degeneration from becoming "eye blinding" wet in some people.

Finally, we know that macular degeneration isn't as much of a genetic condition as it is one of lifestyle. Making the many lifestyle choices that keep your arteries young will reduce your chances of developing both forms of macular degeneration.
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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.