Though age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a leading cause of low vision and blindness in Americans age 60 and older, research has improved prevention, treatments, and outcomes of this disease over the last 10 years. During this month, the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) wants to remind people with AMD that they can save their vision with lifestyle changes and new treatment advances. Early detection of AMD is critical, which points to the importance of understanding your risk for AMD and getting regular eye exams.
What is AMD
AMD is a progressive eye disease which affects the macula or center portion of the retina. It causes problems with detail and color vision, resulting in difficulty with up-close tasks like reading, writing, seeing faces and driving. People with AMD may experience blind spots, blurriness, gray spots, wavy lines, and other symptoms. There are two types of AMD: wet and dry. In the dry form of AMD, debris called “drusen” and pigment changes appear in the macula, which causes central vision loss. Dry macular degeneration is more common than the wet form and, in some cases, it progresses to wet macular degeneration. Wet AMD causes fragile blood vessels to develop and leak fluids in the macula, resulting in rapid and severe vision loss if not treated. Read about how AMD affects vision.
Know Your Risks
You may be at risk of developing AMD if you:
- Are over the age of 60
- Have a family history of AMD
- Smoke cigarettes
- Are overweight or obese
- Have high blood pressure
Reduce Your Risks
Schedule a comprehensive eye exam with an ophthalmologist who can help you reduce the risks of vision loss.
According to ophthalmologist and AAO spokesperson Rahul Khurana, MD., here is what you need to know:
1. AMD may develop silently, with no early symptoms.
In the earliest stages of AMD, you may not notice any changes to your eyes or vision. The AAO urges adults with no symptoms to have an eye exam at least by age 40, even if you do not wear glasses or contacts. After age 65, it is recommended to get an exam every one to two years. If you notice problems with your eyesight or have eye discomfort, see an ophthalmologist right away. Early diagnosis enables timely treatment which can preserve vision.
2. Family history shapes your risk of AMD.
Talk to your family to learn about their eye health. If a close family member has AMD, you have a greater risk of getting the disease. Let your doctor know about any family history of AMD so you can improve your chances of early detection and treatment.
3. Treatments for macular degeneration are more effective than ever.
Fifteen years ago, wet AMD often caused blindness and there was no treatment for it. While there is still no treatment for dry AMD, now there are sight-saving treatments for wet AMD. With the use of anti-VEGF drugs, fewer people are going blind. And in the future, treatments like stem cell therapy may make it possible to prevent vision loss from AMD.
4. Vitamins can slow AMD (but not in all cases).
If you have AMD, you may have heard that the AREDS 2 vitamin formula can help slow the disease. Clinical trials show that these vitamins for AMD can help with intermediate or advanced AMD in one eye. Trials have not shown that they prevent AMD in people who do not have the disease. Ask your eye doctor which vitamin formula is right for you.
5. Smoking increases your risk of macular degeneration.
Many studies have found that smoking cigarettes can increase risk of AMD. Smoking also increases the speed at which the disease worsens. If you smoke, you are twice as likely to get AMD compared with a nonsmoker. The good news is that stopping smoking is the best action you can take to lower your risk of AMD. People who quit smoking 20 years ago have the same risk of AMD as people who have never smoked.
6. Daily vision checking at home is effective at monitoring AMD progression.
The Amsler grid is a simple chart that people with dry AMD can use at home to check for changes in their vision. All you do is look at it once every day! Learn how to use the Amsler grid to track progression and risk of AMD-related vision loss. The images below are of an Amsler grid. The first image shows how the Amsler grid may appear to a person with normal sight and the second shows how it may appear to a person with age-related macular degeneration. These images of the grids are much smaller than normal size. Your eye care professional can tell you how to use it and supply this handy screening tool if you have dry AMD.
7. Eating certain foods may cut your risk of macular degeneration.
Studies have shown that foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids are good for eye health. Studies link eating these foods with a reduced risk of AMD — but not when taken as supplements. Other nutrients that help eye health include lutein, zeaxanthin, zinc, and vitamin C.
To help cut AMD risk and maintain eye health, eat foods such as: cold-water fish (salmon and tuna), citrus fruits, kale, spinach, corn, broccoli, squash, and black-eyed peas.
8. Exercise can help protect your vision as you age.
Many studies show getting regular exercise can benefit your eyes. One study found that exercising three times a week reduced the risk of getting wet AMD by 70%. Studies also show that exercise reduces the risk of all stages of AMD.
Living with AMD
Vision aids and low vision therapy can help people with AMD live independent lives. Learn more about living with vision loss here on VisionAware. Look for vision rehabilitation specialists in your area using VisionAware’s directory of services so you can learn to make the most of your remaining vision.
Check out the book Twilight Losing Sight Gaining Insight by Henry Grunwald, a memoir from a journalist living with AMD. Available through the NLS Talking Book program DB49236 and Amazon.
You may want to visit the Age-Related Macular Degeneration Foundation for more answers to your questions and to follow their blog.
EyeCare America Offers Free Eye Exams and Vision Treatment
Older adults may qualify for EyeCare America, an award-winning program of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. EyeCare America offers exams and sight saving care, often at no out-of-pocket cost. Visit EyeCare America to see if you qualify for free services or medication assistance through prescription assistance programs . To reduce your risk of losing vision from AMD, know the risk factors, learn your family medical history, and keep your regular eye appointments with an ophthalmologist.
The Older Individuals Who are Blind program at the National Research and Training Center offers the course, Common Adult Eye Conditions, which gives information about the causes, symptoms, treatment, and prognosis of and age-related macular degeneration; and other adult eye conditions.