Topic updated: June 2012

Macular Degeneration

What is age-related macular degeneration?

AMD is a common eye condition among people age 50 and older. It is a leading cause of vision loss in older adults. It gradually destroys the macula, the part of the eye that provides sharp, central vision needed for seeing objects clearly.

In some people, AMD advances so slowly that vision loss does not occur for a long time. In others, the disorder progresses faster and may lead to a loss of vision in one or both eyes. The vision loss makes it difficult to recognize faces, drive a car, read, print, or do close work, such as sewing or fixing things around the house.

Despite the limited vision, AMD does not cause complete blindness. You will be able to see using your side (peripheral) vision.

What is the Macula?

The macula is made up of millions of light-sensing cells that provide sharp, detailed central vision. It is the most sensitive part of the retina, which is located at the back of the eye. The retina quickly turns light into electrical signals and then sends these electrical signals to the brain through the optic nerve. Next, the brain translates the electrical signals into images we see. If the macula is damaged, fine points in these images are not clear. The picture is there, but the fine points are lost.

Who is at risk?

AMD usually occurs in people who are age 50 and older. As people get older, the risk increases. Other risk factors include the following:

  • Smoking. Research shows that smoking increases the risk of AMD two-fold.
  • Race. Caucasians are much more likely to get AMD than people of African descent.
  • Family history. People with a family history of AMD are at higher risk.

Does lifestyle make a difference?

Some lifestyle choices, like smoking, are linked to AMD although it remains unknown if altering any of these would alter the impact of AMD on an individual. Nevertheless, the following choices may have an impact on AMD and certainly promote healthy living, including the following:

  • Avoiding smoking
  • Exercising
  • Maintaining normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • Eating a healthy diet rich in green, leafy vegetables and fish

How is AMD detected?

The early and intermediate stages of AMD usually start without symptoms. Only a comprehensive dilated eye exam can detect AMD. The eye exam may include the following:

  • Visual acuity test. This eye chart measures how well you see at distances.
  • Dilated eye exam. Your eye care professional places drops in your eyes to widen or dilate the pupils. This gives him or her a better view of the back of your eye. Using a special magnifying lens, he or she then looks at your retina and optic nerve for signs of AMD and other eye problems.
  • Amsler grid. Your eye care professional also may ask you to look at an Amsler grid. Changes in your central vision may cause the lines in the grid to disappear or appear wavy, a sign of AMD.
  • Fluorescein angiogram. Your eye care professional may suggest you see an ophthalmologist to perform a fluorescein angiogram. With this test, your doctor injects a dye into your arm. Pictures are taken as the dye passes through the blood vessels in your eye. The test allows your doctor to identify leaking blood vessels and decide the best treatment.
Read the rest of this article (including treatment information) at the National Eye Institute.
photo of a human eye in profile

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