Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD)
The back of the eye is lined by a thin layer of photosensitive tissue known as the retina. The retina contains millions of rods and cones, both of which provide highly specialized functions that enable our eyes to see. Cones are responsible for our ability to see sharp details while rods’ primary function is to convert light stimuli into neural signals that can be processed and understood by the brain and central nervous system.
At the center of the retina is the macula, which contains a high concentration of cones. The macula controls our sense of central vision and ability to see in fine detail. Every day, our eyes perform countless tasks that require the macula, including reading, driving, seeing color, and recognizing faces. As we get older, the macula can start to deteriorate and lose functionality. This condition is called age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and it is the most common cause of vision loss in older adults in the US.
Types of Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD): Dry and Wet
There are two types of AMD: dry and wet. The vast majority of patients who have AMD have the dry type, which is, fortunately, the less serious type. One of the most common signs of dry AMD is the presence of a higher than normal amount of drusen under the retina. Drusen are yellowish deposits of fatty cellular debris that build up under the retina.
As we age, small amounts of small-sized drusen accumulate under the retina naturally. As the amount and size of drusen increases, it becomes more likely for a patient to develop advanced macular degeneration. If left untreated, dry AMD can transition into wet AMD. Wet AMD is a serious condition in which abnormal blood vessels grow in the macula. These blood vessels break, leak fluid, and bleed into the macula. If not addressed early on, wet AMD can lead to permanent vision loss.
What are the symptoms of age-related macular degeneration?
During the first stages of AMD, many patients experience little to no symptoms and may not even realize that there is an issue at all. As the macula continues to deteriorate, symptoms include:
- Blurriness vision
- Visual distortions
- Straight lines appearing wavy
- Dim central vision
- Diminished color perception
- Difficulty seeing fine details or reading
Because AMD only impacts the macula and central vision, peripheral vision is left intact.
Am I at risk for developing age-related macular degeneration?
Although the primary risk factor associated with AMD is age, there are a number of other conditions and lifestyle factors that can increase your risk of developing AMD. These include:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Heart disease
- Poor diet
How is age-related macular degeneration treated?
At this present time, there is no cure for either dry or wet AMD. Treatment for dry AMD is largely focused on preventative medicine techniques, such as managing underlying conditions and improving diet. For wet AMD, treatment is determined by how severe the symptoms are. When diagnosed in the earliest stages, patients with wet AMD have a better chance of preserving their vision and preventing the progression of vision loss.
One of the most common treatments for wet AMD (and many other retina conditions) is anti-vascular endothelial growth factor (anti-VEGF) medications. These medications are administered directly into the eye via injection and help to stop abnormal blood vessels from growing. Another common treatment is laser photocoagulation, which is used to seal off abnormal blood vessels so that they no longer leak or bleed.
How can I prevent age-related macular degeneration?
While you can’t completely control the entire aging process, there are several lifestyle habits that you can implement in your life to reduce your chances of developing AMD or keep it from getting worse. If you have any other risk factors that can increase your risk, it’s important that you manage these conditions closely.
We also often recommend that patients practice good health habits to stave off the development or progression of AMD. Our recommendations include:
- Eating healthy foods that are rich in eye-healthy nutrients (i.e. fish, leafy green vegetables, carrots, sweet potatoes, etc.)
- Starting a vitamin regimen that includes vitamin C, vitamin E, lutein, zeaxanthin, zinc, and copper (Note: be sure to talk to your doctor first before starting a new vitamin regimen; your doctor will provide advice on dosage)
- Protecting your eyes from harmful UV rays from the sun by wearing sunglasses and hats
- Achieving and/or maintaining a healthy BMI
One of the biggest things you can do to preserve your vision and/or prevent vision loss is to schedule regular eye exams. Your ophthalmologist is more likely to detect the earliest signs of AMD if you are consistent with your routine eye exams. For patients between the ages of 40 to 54, you should be scheduling eye exams at least every two to four years, depending on your health needs. If you’re over the age of 55, your eye exams should be scheduled at least every one to two years.