More Americans lose vision to macular degeneration than to any other cause of blindness. According to the American Macular Degeneration Foundation (AMDF), macular degeneration affects more than ten million Americans and is currently considered incurable.
Macular degeneration occurs when the macula, the central portion of the retina, deteriorates. Typical signs and symptoms include a loss of central vision (essentially, a large black spot in the center of the eye) and an inability to notice finer details. It can also be accompanied by trouble recognizing facial features, since the optic nerve is unable to properly send and receive information to and from the brain when this condition is present. Reading, driving, cooking, cleaning-all of these daily tasks become difficult (and sometimes dangerous) when someone experiences macular degeneration.
Who is at Risk?
The most important factor for determining the risk of developing macular degeneration is age. The AMDF says that the disease most often occurs in people over the age of 55. Other risk factors include: genetic/family history, being of Caucasian descent (as opposed to black or Latino), and smoking (which doubles the chances of developing macular degeneration). Further complications can increase the incidence of macular degeneration, including cardiovascular conditions such as high blood pressure or heart disease. Exposing your eyes to sunlight without proper protection can also hurry along the development of the disease.
How Can it Be Prevented?
Many of the risk factors listed above (and the many more that can be found on AMDF's website) are things that are out of a senior's control. Family history cannot be controlled, nor can race or age, but knowing that these risk factors are in place can give a sense of how vigilant to be about symptoms. Being on the look-out for symptoms and regular eye exams will help, as the loss of vision may not occur in the early stages of macular degeneration. Eye doctors can see the damage beginning before a senior may notice it, so yearly screenings are a great preventive measure and can result in early detection.
However, some risk factors are controllable. Smokers should consult with a doctor for help with quitting. If a senior has a heart condition (or is genetically predisposed to such), regular checkups, following the doctor's instructions, following medication regimens, and healthy diet and exercise may all help keep macular degeneration at bay.
Most senior women live longer than senior men, which puts them at greater risk for developing macular degeneration at some point. Yearly checkups are especially important for senior women, even if other risk factors are not present.
What if the Signs are There?
There is no cure for someone who has been diagnosed with macular degeneration, but there are treatments to help lessen the symptoms and stop the downward progression of the disease. For so-called "dry" macular degeneration, most doctors will prescribe a diet with lots of antioxidants, which will help the macula remain strong against further deterioration. (In general, a diet with lots of antioxidants is a healthy one. A primary care doctor or nutritionist can recommend healthy options for such a diet as a preventive measure.) If the disease is more advanced, doctors may add vitamin supplements in order to support macular strength.
For "wet" macular degeneration, the less common type, a laser may be used to close off leaking blood vessels. Instead of just deterioration, in wet macular degeneration, blood leaks into the wrong places, which means that the macula gets lesser amounts of oxygen and may be obscured by blood. A laser can be guided to close these leaking vessels, which can help slow the damage. This does not always fix everything--about half of those vessels will leak again within two years, meaning that this typically in-office procedure will have to be done more than once. Some doctors may also use an injection of drugs which slows the development of new blood vessels, which can mean fewer leaky vessels around the eye. This treatment has been remarkably effective, resulting in a much slower deterioration of the macula.
Knowing the risk factors, knowing the symptoms, and scheduling regular checkups are the first line of defense against macular degeneration for any senior. Early detection and treatment may preserve the majority of vision as the senior ages. The idea of being able to see the faces of loved ones, the details of a beautiful painting, or the sunlight glinting off a park's pond is enough to inspire most seniors to seek this type of preventive care, and caregivers can encourage such preventive measures.
American Macular Degeneration Foundation (AMDF). What is Macular Degeneration? Available at https://www.macular.org/what-macular-degeneration. Retrieved March 22, 2016.
Claiborne, Ray C. (March 19, 2016). Fighting Macular Degeneration. The New York Times Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/22/science/macular-degeneration-cure.html?&moduleDetail=section-news-5&action=click&contentCollection=Health®ion=Footer&module=MoreInSection&version=WhatsNext&contentID=WhatsNext&pgtype=Blogs. Retrieved March 22, 2016.
Mayo Clinic Staff. (December 4, 2015). Dry Macular Degeneration: Symptoms and Causes. Available at http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dry-macular-degeneration/symptoms-causes/dxc-20164888. Retrieved March 22, 2016.
Mogk, Lylas G. The Difference Between Wet and Dry Age-Related Macular Degeneration. VisionAware.org. Available at http://www.visionaware.org/info/your-eye-condition/age-related-macular-degeneration-amd/wet-and-dry-amd/125. Retrieved March 22, 2016.
National Eye Institute. (September 2015). Facts About Age-Related Macular Degeneration. National Institutes of Health. Available at https://nei.nih.gov/health/maculardegen/armd_facts. Retrieved March 22, 2016.