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WHAT IS MACULAR DEGENERATION?

Unless you or a family member has been diagnosed with macular degeneration, you’ve probably heard the term before but aren’t aware of the specifics of what it means. Macular degeneration is the leading cause of age-related vision loss, which means understanding the disease and having a conversation about it with your eye doctor is important.

WHAT IS MACULAR DEGENERATION?

macular degeneration eyeImage via Flickr by future_crazy_cat_lady

Macular degeneration is an optic disease that affects the retina. In the center of the retina is the macula, which is responsible for straight-ahead and close-up vision. You use your macula for reading, driving, and recognizing people. Macular degeneration is characterized by the macular cells becoming damaged. It comes in two forms, both of which affect the macula: dry and wet macular degeneration. Dry macular degeneration, which is responsible for 90 percent of macular degeneration cases, happens when the retinal pigment epithelial cells in the macula thin out or start to break down. Wet macular degeneration occurs only after dry macular degeneration happens. In the wet form, blood vessels grow under this layer of the retina and leak fluid.

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?

Early stages of dry macular degeneration may not cause any symptoms. The disease is painless, and sufferers don’t have vision loss until later stages. In the next stage, blurring or waviness occurs in the central vision area. In the most advanced stages, the middle of the vision is completely lost, though peripheral vision remains. You can have dry or wet macular degeneration without experiencing vision loss, though if you develop wet macular degeneration, chances are your vision will deteriorate quickly.

WHAT CAUSES IT?

Research has not yielded any definitive causes of macular degeneration, but the most typical cause is age. Caucasians are more at risk than other ethnic groups. Genetics also plays a role, so be aware of your family’s eye health history. Smoking doubles your risk, and UV ray exposure is also a culprit. To keep your eyes as protected as possible, always wear UV protection when outdoors, quit smoking, and get regular eye examinations.

HOW IS IT TREATED?

Macular degeneration can’t be cured or reversed with current eye care technology. If you are diagnosed, however, you can slow the progression of the disease. Many doctors will recommend vitamin supplements, like Vitamins C and E, and beta-carotene, in addition to UV protection and quitting smoking. In the case of wet macular degeneration, a few treatments are available which will slow the development of blood vessels under the macula. Eylea, Lucentis, and Macugen are the most popular. Between 10 and 20 percent of patients with considerable blood vessel growth become candidates for laser photocoagulation, which eliminates the vessels. An unfortunate side effect is scarring, which can also cause vision loss, but the vision loss from scarring is less than it would be with the blood vessel leakage. The best way to protect your eyes from deteriorating as you age is to visit your eye doctor for regular check-ups. Don’t forget to lead a healthy lifestyle and to always protect your eyes.