Macular degeneration is when the macula, a portion of the retina that is responsible for primary vision, becomes damaged in the back of your eye. This damage makes your vision blurry and difficult to see fine details such as when reading television or reading books. Macular degeneration is one of the main causes for irreversible vision loss in the United States as we age, especially among Caucasians.
What exactly is the Retina and the Macula?
The retina lies in the back of the eye and detects light. The “macula” is just a fancy name to describe the middle of the retina responsible for clear central vision. If you think of the retina like film inside a camera, then you can think of macular degeneration as if that film is getting “a little worn out.” Unfortunately, this aging process tends to occur right in the center of your vision, where it is most noticeable and causes blurry vision.
Two Different Types of Macular Degeneration
Macular degeneration can present as two types.
Type 1: Dry macular degeneration
The large majority of people have the traditional “dry” macular degeneration. The macular portion of the retina wears out over time and loses function. Vision loss is gradual and progressively worsens over years. Most people describe their vision as “blurry” with difficulty reading or watching television.
Type 2: “wet” macular degeneration
About 10% of patients with macular degeneration go on to develop the more damaging “wet” variety. Wet degeneration is less common, but occurs suddenly and causes a sudden loss of vision. Abnormal blood vessels in the retina burst and leak blood into the retina. This blood creates inflammation and the retinal scaring creates permanent vision loss. This blood leakage can be compared to bad plumbing inside your house: if the pipes burst, your house becomes “wet” and your furniture is ruined.
What can you do?
There are a number of things you can do to slow the progression of dry macular degeneration. These include:
1. Stop Smoking: If you smoke, then you better stop! Smoking accelerates the progression of macular degeneration and vision loss. Quitting smoking is also the number one thing you can do to prolong your life.
2. Wear sunglasses: There is some scientific evidence linking sun exposure to macular degeneration. Wear sunglasses when outside or driving.
3. Vitamin Supplements: For certain stages of macular degeneration, certain vitamins may slow progression. However, vitamins can have other side-effects, so ask your eye doctor before starting.
4. Monitor your vision: If you have dry degeneration, you want to make sure you don’t develop an internal bleed and develop “wet” degeneration. Cover each eye periodically to make sure your vision isn’t changing. You can also use an Amsler Grid … this is a printed sheet of criss-crossed lines that you can post on your refrigerator door. If the lines on that grid stop looking straight, you should contact your eye doctor.
Macular degeneration is usually a slow process that occurs over decades. While loss of central vision can be distressing, macular degeneration never causes total blindness (complete darkness) as the peripheral vision is spared. Even patients with advanced macular degeneration are often able to perform daily tasks and get around, though tasks such as reading need to be assisted with visual aids like magnifiers and closed-circuit televisions.
Over the past five years, great advances in the treatment of wet macular degeneration have emerged. These include laser and injection therapies to limit bleeding inside the eye. However, these advance treatments are only effective when used early enough. Monitor your eyes on a periodic basis to make sure you haven’t had sudden vision loss. And be sure to get regular checkups from an eye doctor you trust.