The Scoop on Age-Related Macular Degeneration

Learn more about the leading cause of legal blindness in people age 65 and over.

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Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the deterioration of the macula in the retina, the part of the eye that controls how well we can see detail in front of us – as opposed to seeing things in our periphery. While older individuals have a higher chance of developing macular degeneration as a part of the aging process. Other risk factors include heredity, inflammation, abnormal cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, oxidative stress (where there are excess free radicals in the body), and smoking.

Some quick facts:

  • In 2010, 9.1 million Americans had early AMD.
  • AMD is a leading cause of legal blindness (not complete blindness) in people age 65 and over.
  • Nearly 2.1 million Americans age 50 and older have late AMD, the stage that can lead to severe vision impairment.
  • By age 80, 1 in 10 Americans are diagnosed with late AMD, which is more common in common in women than in men.  

There are two types of macular degeneration: dry and wet.

Dry, atrophic macular degeneration is the most common type of AMD. It occurs when protein builds up in and around the macula because the cells responsible for clearing it are no longer present.  These missing cells affect central vision, and can cause blurred, speckled, or distorted vision. Dry macular degeneration can develop in one or both eyes and over time, it can also lead to central vision loss or progress into wet macular degeneration.

Wet, exudative macular degeneration is rare, and only accounts for only about 10 percent of AMD cases, but it attacks vision more aggressively. In wet macular degeneration, new blood vessels start to grow underneath the retina where they shouldn’t be. As these vessels grow, they begin to leak fluid and blood which rapidly damage the macula. Wet macular degeneration can lead to central vision loss in a very short period of time. Those with AMD usually don’t notice it until damage has already occurred, but an optometrist or ophthalmologist can detect early signs of AMD in a comprehensive, dilated eye exam.

If your eye doctor finds signs of advanced wet macular degeneration, he or she might suggest injection treatments, which will help block the chemical promoting growth of the blood vessels, which reduces the growth of abnormal blood vessels. They may also suggest photodynamic therapy, which uses a cold or cool laser to activate medication (that is injected into the arm) in the blood vessels of the eye.

There is currently no FDA-approved cure for dry macular degeneration. Eating healthy, exercising consistently, avoiding smoking, and visiting your eye doctor annually are the best ways to prevent and slow the progression of any eye condition, including AMD. Because AMD doesn’t damage peripheral vision, those who have it are usually able to continue their normal activities with the help of low-vision optical devices or other vision aids.

Be sure to make your annual eye exam appointment so your doctor can check for signs of conditions like AMD and help to prevent vision loss.

This article is presented in collaboration with VSP Vision Care