What is it?
The macula is the central part of the retina where our vision is most sensitive and clearest. The retina is the light sensitive tissue at the back of the eye, the “projection screen” which receives all the images. It is responsible for your ability to read, recognise faces, drive and see colours clearly. You are reading this page using your macula. Macular Degeneration (MD) causes progressive macula damage resulting in loss of central vision; generally the peripheral vision is not affected.
MD is the leading cause of blindness and severe vision loss in Australia and is a disease of older age. One in seven people over the age of 50 years is affected in some way and the incidence increases exponentially with age.
There are two types of MD. The dry form is caused by a build up of metabolic wastes behind the retina which results in a gradual loss of central vision. The wet form is characterised by a sudden loss of vision and is caused by abnormal blood vessels growing into the retina and causing bleeding.
What are the risk factors?
MD is thought to be caused by genetic and environmental factors. People over the age of 50 years are at risk.
If you have a family history of macular degeneration, your risk of developing the disease is much greater; the condition is also more common in people with fair skin and blue eyes.
There is a very strong correlation between smoking and MD – smoking increases your risk of developing the condition around 50%! Poor diet is also a contributor to the disease.
What are the symptoms?
- Difficulty with reading or any other activity that requires fine vision.
- Distortion, where straight lines appear wavy or bent.
- Distinguishing faces becomes a problem.
- Dark patches or empty spaces appear in the centre of your vision.
The need for increased illumination, sensitivity to glare, decreased night vision and poor colour sensitivity may also indicate that there is something wrong. If you experience any of these symptoms contact your optometrist immediately.
How is macular degeneration detected?
The early detection of any form of MD is crucial because the earlier you seek treatment, the more likely you are to have a better outcome compared to those who wait. Difficulty with your vision should not be dismissed as part of just ‘getting older’. In its early stages MD may not be noticed but it can be detected in an eye test before any visual symptoms occur. Early detection of changes can allow you to take steps to slow the progression of MD.
What treatments are available for macular degeneration?
Treatment options are dependant on the stage and type of disease. Doctors are able to manage the wet form of the disease using regular injections into the eye. For this treatment to be effective early detection and diagnosis is essential. Any sudden changes in vision regardless of how minor should always be investigated to optimise the opportunity to preserve vision. Early detection is vital in saving sight.
Current treatments aim to preserve vision for as long as possible and in some cases may potentially provide visual improvement, but there is presently no cure.
Some eye disease studies have shown a small benefit in slowing progression of MD from taking vitamin supplements. These include a specific combination of vitamins and minerals, including Vitamins A, E, C copper and zinc; Lutein and Xeanthin, both found naturally in the macula, have also been found to be helpful. Omega 3 (from fish oil) is recommended for maintaining good general eye health.
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