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What is Macular Degeneration?

Currently, millions of people around the world go blind every year due to age-related macular degeneration; in fact, it is known as a leading cause of blindness. The volume of cases of blindness caused by macular degeneration is only expected to continue to increase over the next few decades, signaling a need for intervention and prevention.

Unfortunately, many people do not learn about macular degeneration until the moment they are diagnosed with it. By learning about what causes macular degeneration and how to recognize its early signs, you may be able to prevent it and protect your vision.

What is Macular Degeneration?

Macular degeneration is a condition of the part of the eye known as the “retina,” and for which there is currently no cure. The retina is responsible for capturing light and turning it into nerve signals that are then sent to the brain and processed into what we see.

The retina has a surface layer of cells (known as the retinal pigment epithelium, or RPE) that is responsible for moving nutrients and removing wastes from the retina. When this process of transportation starts to fail, deposits known as drusen accumulate beneath the retina. Less oxygen gets to the eye, and the macula begins to break down. The macula is an essential component to relaying the signals needed for good vision, and so if it starts to degrade, vision starts to suffer.

Wet vs. Dry Macular Degeneration

Dry macular degeneration occurs more commonly of the two conditions, with somewhere between 80 and 95% of macular degeneration being the dry kind. With dry macular degeneration, the thinning of the macula occurs as described in the previous section. If left untreated, this can gradually lead to vision loss.

Wet macular degeneration triggers effects on a much more rapid timescale, and is therefore more likely to lead to blindness. In wet macular degeneration, blood vessels start to grow under the retina and leak out. This causes bulging of the macula, which in turn can lead to permanent vision loss.

Symptoms of Macular Degeneration

The symptoms are slow to develop, and so they can be easy to miss in their early stages.

The first symptoms are usually some reduction in vision quality, where it’s harder to focus on and see things clearly, or visual distortions, such as straight lines appearing curved. Over time, these disruptions can worsen.

White or black spots of complete vision loss may develop, looking a lot like clouds within the field of vision. These can continue to grow in size with time. A small subset of patients with macular degeneration report that colors look different to them.

Causes of Macular Degeneration

The most common factor tied to both forms of macular degeneration is age. While something like 2% of 50-year-olds have macular degeneration, almost one-third of people over 75 have it.

Race may play a factor, with caucasians and Chinese people being at the greatest risk. In fact, something like one-third of caucasians are suspected of having a gene directly linked to macular degeneration. And if you have light-colored eyes, your odds of developing it only go up further.

Smoking, a history of heart disease, obesity, and damage from UV rays are additional factors that increase the likelihood of developing the condition.

What Treatments Are Available for Macular Degeneration?

There is currently no cure for macular degeneration. At best, doctors may use one of several methods to try to slow it down  and stave off any major loss of vision.

Anti-angiogenic drugs stop new blood vessels from forming, and so if you have wet macular degeneration your doctor may inject these directly into your eye. Laser therapy can also be used to help stop new blood vessels from forming.

Otherwise, there are some vitamins that might help slow macular degeneration, including vitamins C and E, copper, zinc, and beta-carotene. Lutein is another possibly helpful supplement.

Macular Degeneration Prevention

Of course, getting regular eye checkups can help detect macular degeneration earlier and help prevent vision loss. This is particularly true after the age of 65.

Studies have shown that cigarette smoking is the single most modifiable risk factor associated with macular degeneration. The cessation of smoking is key to preventing disease formation and progression. 

Eating a balanced diet, not smoking, and wearing sunglasses that effectively block out UV rays are your best bets for preventing it. Any steps you take to maintain cardiovascular health will likely positively impact your eye health.

Keep that in mind the next time you hear medical recommendations to reduce stress, eat healthier, and exercise daily. These lifestyle changes could help you not just live longer, but even protect your vision.

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