Macular Degeneration - Facts, Symptoms & Treatment
Macular degeneration is a vision disorder that usually happens as people get older. When younger people have macular degeneration, it is normally called "macular dystrophy." Humans have two types of vision--peripheral (side) vision and central vision. When someone has macular degeneration, their central vision begins to dull, making it hard for them to read, drive, and see objects clearly. The macula is the part of the eye that process fine details, so someone with macular degeneration might be able to see shapes and colors but not able to process letters or other small, intricate details of vision.
Macular degeneration can be caused slowly or rapidly. When it occurs rapidly, it is usually because tiny blood vessels have formed and burst under the macula, a process called wet macular degeneration. Blood can cause severe damage to the cells in the macula in a short amount of time. If the macular degeneration occurs over a longer period of time, it is usually because of dry macular degeneration, which is caused by a more gradual break-down of macular cells. Dry macular degeneration occurs slowly enough that doctors have named three different stages, from early to advanced. Everyone with age-related macular degeneration has the dry type, but only a small percentage (around fifteen percent) go on to get wet macular degeneration.
Symptoms of Macular Degeneration
The primary symptom most people have of macular degeneration is blurry vision. They might have a hard time seeing details without bright light, or they might have a growing blind spot. With wet macular degeneration, the most common symptom is distorted vision. Straight lines may look crooked because of all the fluid, and there might be a sudden blind spot. With either type of macular degeneration, people may have a hard time seeing after being in bright light or distinguishing two colors that are either very light or very dark.
How Is Macular Degeneration Diagnosed?
Eye doctors can usually diagnose macular degeneration easily and non-invasively. They will usually do a basic eye test on you to determine how well you are seeing and check for blind spots. They can also dilate your eyes and look at your retinas (the seeing parts of your eyes) with a lighted magnifying scope. When they look in your eyes with this scope, they can tell whether or not your eyes have any yellow deposits on them (drusen), which can often appear even before the person notices any vision problems. Finally, doctors may use a tool to check the pressure of your eyes, which can warn them of any other eye problems like glaucoma. If your doctor is very concerned about wet macular degeneration, they may give you an injection of dye through an IV and look in your eyes with a special scope to check for any "leaks" in the blood vessels in your eyes.
How is Macular Degeneration Treated?
Macular degeneration can cause a lot of problems for people affected by it, but the good news is that there are many treatments for it. Although there is no risk-free cure, the progression of dry macular degeneration can be slowed by taking a megadose of zinc, vitamin C, vitamin, E, and beta-carotene. This only seems to work for people with intermediate dry macular degeneration. Wet macular degeneration can be treated in several ways, some of which are non-invasive and almost painless. Photodynamic therapy involves an injection of a special light-activated drug into the person's arm. This drug travels to the blood vessels in the eyes, and then the eye doctor shines a bright light into the eyes for a few minutes to trigger the drug, which immediately destroys the new "bad" blood vessels in the retina. This effect can also be achieved by laser surgery, but laser surgery has the disadvantage of destroying a small bit of healthy tissue in the eyes, which the light therapy doesn't. However, light vision usually has to be done more than once. There are also drugs that can be injected directly into the eyes every month or so, and although these are the most invasive treatments, they can sometimes give people some of their sight back. Vision problems occurring from both types of macular degeneration can be treated using low-vision devices and techniques, such as magnifying text and setting computers to high contrast.
How Can I Prevent Macular Degeneration?
Some risk factors for macular degeneration are out of your control, such as family history, being white, or being female. However, there are some things everyone can do to prevent macular degeneration. Eye doctors encourage people at a higher risk for macular degeneration not to smoke. Additionally, working out, maintaining a healthy weight and blood pressure, and eating lots of eye-healthy foods (like fish and leafy green vegetables) can all significantly lower peoples' chances of getting macular degeneration. People who already have macular degeneration shouldn't be afraid to use their remaining eyesight to enjoy life, because things like reading or using a computer screen will not affect the disease's progression. Everyone should have eye exams regularly, and people who are over the age of sixty or who have drusens should go more often. People with drusens or dry macular degeneration should use an Amsler chart provided by their eye doctor to check their own vision daily and call their eye doctor right away if they notice any changes.
With macular degeneration: