Macular Degeneration: Symptoms, Variations, and Treatment Options

Macular degeneration is an eye disease in which the central portion of the retina is damaged, and it’s the leading cause of vision loss. Annual eye exams are the best way to identify the disease to prevent it from progressing. Here’s more information.

10 minute read

Last Updated July 15, 2020

Macular Degeneration: Symptoms, Variations, and Treatment Options

Macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss. The disease does not cause complete blindness because it does not affect your peripheral vision. Deterioration only occurs in your central vision

Specifically, the central portion of the retina is damaged. The retina is responsible for recording images and sending them to the brain via the optic nerve. The macula within the retina focuses on central vision and controls important visual functions:

♦ Ability to recognize faces
♦ Ability to see fine details
♦ Ability to read
♦ Ability to drive a car

The macula is the most sensitive part of the eye, and degeneration interferes with the ability to receive images correctly. Vision loss gets worse as the disease progresses, and those with advanced macular degeneration are considered legally blind. Even with peripheral vision still intact, vision is unclear. 

What Causes Macular Degeneration?

The specific factors that cause macular degeneration are largely unknown. Research has shown that both hereditary and environmental factors play roles. What has been identified are factors that can increase your risk of developing the disease. These factors include:

♦ Being over the age of 65
♦ Smoking
♦ Being overweight
♦ Having cardiovascular disease
♦ Having a family history of the disease

Macular Degeneration Symptoms

Vision is not affected early in the disease. As it progresses, vision deteriorates, becoming blurry. Central vision can be completely lost as the disease worsens. 

Vision changes are more difficult to identify if they occur in both eyes at the same time. The symptoms you may start to notice can include:

♦ The need for brighter lighting
♦ Reduction in central vision
Blurriness
♦ Trouble recognizing faces
♦ Distortion of straight lines
♦ Difficulty adapting to low lights

Stages of Macular Degeneration

There are three distinct stages of macular degeneration. 

Early-stage: There is rarely vision loss at this stage. Regular eye examinations are critical at this point if you have any risk factors for the disease. Easy stage macular degeneration is diagnosed by the presence of medium-sized drusen. 

Intermediate stage: There may be some vision loss, and there may not be any noticeable symptoms. A comprehensive exam is needed to identify larger drusen or pigment changes. 

Late-stage: Vision loss is noticeable at this stage.

What Are the Variations of Macular Degeneration?

There are two types of macular degeneration. 

♦ Dry macular degeneration is the most common type. Small yellow deposits called drusen begin to develop under the macula, causing distortion. Damage to the retina occurs, and vision is gradually lost.

♦ Wet macular degeneration is not as common and only affects about 15 percent of those with the disease. Abnormal blood vessels develop under the retina and macula. You will likely see a dark spot in the center of your vision as a result of the blood vessels leaking. 

Wet macular degeneration moves faster than the dry version and is more likely to lead to blindness. 

Macular Degeneration Diagnosis

Annual eye exams are the best way to identify macular degeneration. You need to advise your doctor if you notice any changes in vision. There are a number of tests that can be done to diagnose the disease. 

Special eye drops can be used to dilate your pupils so they can look through to the back of the eye. In doing so, deposits on the retina can be identified. Your central vision will also be checked using a grid. If lines on the grid appear broken or faded, macular degeneration may be the cause. 

Other tests that can be done may include:

Fluorescein angiography: A colored dye is injected into your veins to examine the blood vessels. A special camera takes pictures of your eyes to help identify changes in the blood vessels and retina.

Indocyanine green angiography: This is similar to the fluorescein procedure but uses an indocyanine dye instead. This test is done to confirm the findings of the previous test. 

Optical coherence tomography: Cross-sectional images are taken of the retina to look for swelling and thickening or thinning. 

Treatment for Macular Degeneration

Macular degeneration is considered an incurable disease. There are treatment options available that can slow the progression of the disease. These options depend on the type of macular degeneration that you have. 

Treatment for dry macular degeneration: You can work with a low vision rehabilitation specialist who will help you adjust to vision loss. Surgery may also be recommended to improve vision.

Treatment for wet macular degeneration: Working with a low-vision rehabilitation specialist helps in this case also. Medication can be applied to your eye to prevent the growth of new blood vessels. It can take a few weeks before a difference is noticed. 

Macular Degeneration Diet

A healthy lifestyle and diet have an important impact on macular degeneration. The right foods can boost eye strength and health to serve as a preventative measure. You can also slow the progression of the disease, maximizing eye health. 

Dietary supplements that contain vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc, lutein, and zeaxanthin have been shown to slow the disease’s progress. Additional dietary steps to take include:

♦ Eat more vegetables, especially leafy greens.
♦ Consume more omega-3 fatty acids (found in fatty fish like salmon).
♦ Significantly reduce sugar intake.
♦ Consume more high-fiber fruits like apples, bananas, and strawberries.

Natural Treatments for Macular Degeneration

There is no way to reverse macular degeneration, but lifestyle changes can have a positive impact. 

In addition to medical treatment and dietary changes, you can also try the following to reduce your risks or slow the disease.

Get regular exercise: High blood pressure, obesity, and high cholesterol all increase the risk of macular degeneration. Maintaining a healthy weight and getting regular exercise is a key step in preventing these conditions. 

Quit smoking: Studies show that tobacco accelerates vision loss and significantly increases the risk of macular degeneration. Smoking speeds the progress of the disease in those already diagnosed. Quitting is the only solution to reduce the risk and slow progression of vision loss. 

Macular Degeneration Statistics

♦ Over 10 million Americans have macular degeneration and close to 196 million worldwide.

♦ Eighty-five to 90 percent of individuals with macular degeneration have the dry type.

♦ The risk of getting macular degeneration increases with age. Thirty percent of those over the age of 75 are at risk.

♦ The global cost of visual impairment due to macular degeneration is $343 billion.

♦ One in 10 individuals with the disease experience visual hallucinations due to low visual stimulation

Macular Degeneration and Surgery

In some cases, laser surgery can be recommended to treat macular degeneration. The purpose of the surgery is to slow the loss of central vision. 

Eye drops are used to numb the eye. A laser is pointed at the blood vessels to seal them, so they no longer leak. This procedure is only available for wet macular degeneration. 

Cold laser (light) treatment can also be used. Medicine that reacts to light is injected into your blood. When it reaches your retina, light is used to activate the medicine to close the leaking blood vessels. 

Macular Degeneration and Children

Juvenile macular degeneration is rare but possible. It is an inherited disease affecting children and young adults. The condition is caused by a gene that is passed down through generations, and there is no treatment. 

Adaptive training, visual aids, and support tools are offered to help young people with vision loss. Genetic counseling is also available for parents to assess the risks of passing the disease to their children.

What Is the Long-Term Outlook?

As macular degeneration progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to perform daily functions. Vision loss means you cannot drive a car, complete activities, or read. Approximately 30 percent of individuals with advanced-stage degeneration also experience anxiety or  depression. 

There is no cure, but macular degeneration can be prevented. Get your eyes checked annually and maintain a healthy lifestyle to minimize the risk of vision loss.

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