Macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss in North America for those over the age of 50. While this disease can develop at any age, it is a common part of the aging process, where it is referred to as "age-related macular degeneration," or AMD.
Macular degeneration occurs as the macula deteriorates. The macula is near the centre of the retina (the tissue at the back of the eye that is sensitive to light) and is what allows us to distinguish colour and make out fine detail. As the macula degenerates, a small spot or blurriness appears in the middle of the field of vision, which makes it difficult to see clearly. Over time, this obstruction may increase in size, effectively blocking the view of objects directly in front of the person. While the peripheral vision (the vision off to the side) usually remains intact, some activities that may have been once taken for granted, such as reading, hobbies, sports, or even recognizing the face of a loved one, may no longer be possible.
AMD takes 2 forms, referred to as "dry" and "wet." The dry form accounts for about 90% of cases; it progresses at a gradual pace as the tissue of the retina slowly becomes damaged. The wet form is more severe and involves leakage from blood vessels into the retina, leading to damage and, in turn, rapid loss of vision.
If you have a family history of AMD, speak to your ophthalmologist about your chances of having inherited this condition. Additional risk factors include smoking, damage from ultraviolet light (e.g., the sun's rays), eye injuries or infections, high blood pressure, diabetes, and hardening of the arteries in the eye.
There is no "wonder cure" for AMD. As with many diseases, early detection plays a key role in the success of treatment – so be sure to have regular eye examinations with your eye care professional. While certain vitamin combinations, such as those containing beta-carotene, vitamins C and E, zinc, leutine, zeaxanthin, and omega-3 fatty acids, are known to delay the progression of dry AMD, they cannot stop it completely nor reverse any damage already done. Wet AMD can often be treated through a procedure called photodynamic therapy, which involves injecting a dye and shining an infrared light on the macula to help stop the blood vessels from leaking fluids. This can help restore some vision. Laser surgery is another option. Researchers working on new medications hope that one day these can counter this degenerative disease.
To learn about coping with loss of vision and maximizing the use of remaining peripheral vision, contact the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). Or ask your eye care professional to refer you to special resources in your area. While vision loss can lead to feelings of isolation, keep in mind that macular degeneration is a common condition and plenty of help and support is available.
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