Macular Degeneration (MD), and in particular Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD), is the leading cause of blindness in elderly people in the western world. Sufferers slowly lose the ability to see fine detail, for example reading fine print or recognising faces from a normal distance. MD is a result of changes to the macula - a part of the retina located on the back of the eye that is responsible for clear vision, and in particular your central vision (for this reason, your peripheral vision is not affected by macular degeneration).
MD has several causes. In Age-related Macular Degeneration, the macula becomes thin over time as you age and thus does not work as well. This form of AMD is considered to be a part of the natural ageing process, and may take years to develop. It is sometimes referred to as ‘Dry Macular Degeneration’ (as opposed to ‘Wet MD’ detailed below) and is a condition that can only be managed - there is currently no effective cure for it, although research continues into the condition. As it may be years before MD effects your vision, immediate treatment may not be necessary - consult with your optometrist and make sure you undertake regular eye examinations to ensure that, when your MD starts to affect your vision, you are ready for treatment.
The so-called ‘Wet Macular Degeneration’ is a form of rapid-onset macular degeneration caused by fluids from newly formed blood vessels leaking into the eye which cover the macula, leading to vision loss. If detected early, this condition can be treated with laser therapy at your local Eye Infirmary or hospital Ophthalmology department, but early detection and prompt treatment are vital in limiting the damage Wet Macular Degeneration can cause to your vision. This type of MD can be avoidable by changing your diet to maximise your daily intake of zeaxanthins, which can prevent the creation of new blood vessels around your eyes and thus reduce the risk of developing Wet MD.
Macular degeneration develops differently in each person, so the symptoms - and their severity - may vary from one person to the next. Some of the most common symptoms include the following:
- A gradual loss of ability to see objects clearly
- Distorted vision (objects appear to be the wrong size / shape, or straight lines appear wavy or crooked
- A gradual loss of clear colour vision
- A dark or empty area appearing in the centre of your vision
These symptoms may indicate other health problems, so if you experience any of these, make an appointment and make sure to inform your optometrist about them. If any of these symptoms develops rapidly, over the course of days or weeks, it could indicate Wet MD, in which case contact your optometrist immediately to book an appointment as soon as possible and as a matter of urgency.
Unfortunately, central vision damaged by any form of macular degeneration cannot be restored. But because your peripheral vision is not affected, low vision aids (such as telescopic or microsopic lenses and magnifying glasses) can be used to help you to make the most of your remaining vision. MD sufferers are often still able to get around in their daily routine reasonably well, especially if they have adapted well to low vision aids.
Remember: The most effective treatment of macular degeneration is dependent on early detection. Use an Amsler grid such as the one below to aid you in determining if you have macular degeneration. Your optometrist will be able to provide you with a paper one that you can use to monitor yourself for macular degeneration.
How to use the Amsler Grid:
- Hold the grid at arms length as if it were a book you are reading
- Hold one hand over your left eye
- With your right eye, fix your gaze on the spot at the centre
- Without moving your eyes, pay attention to the grid lines around the spot in your peripheral vision
- Repeat with your left eye, with your hand over your right eye
- If the lines appear bent or distorted (see the image to the right) it is usually an indication that macular degeneration is forming - you should see your optometrist as soon as possible.
For more information about macular degeneration, please see the Macular Disease Society’s excellent and informative website.