Macular Degeneration: A Major Health Problem In The United States

– By Stephen Cohen, O.D.

Most people have an awareness that glaucoma can lead to loss of vision, and that diabetes can damage the back of our eyes. However, there is a disease that is more prevalent than glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy combined. It is estimated that this disease will affect about 7 percent of the population above the age of 40, more than 10 percent aged 60 or more, and about one in three people aged 75 or older! This disease? Macular Degeneration (ARMD).

Deposits in the sensitive part of our retina responsible for our sharp, central vision, will gradually damage the macular area. This could lead to significant or total loss of our central vision, leaving the patient with only blurry peripheral vision to function. Tasks like reading, driving and watching TV can be severely impaired.

As is true with most progressive diseases, early diagnosis of ARMD is critical to help treat and prevent it from getting worse, which it will do if left untreated. However, this is not always easy in the early stages, in part, due to the fact that people often delay going to their eye doctors, and in part, because the early signs are not always easy to detect by your doctor. As a matter of fact, about 25 percent of “normal” senior patients have ARMD and don’t know it. People with fair skin and light eyes are considerably more susceptible to this disease, but there are also modifiable risk factors (e.g., long-term exposure to UV and “blue light,” smoking [a major risk factor], high fat diets).

There is new technology (AdaptDx) that can identify these subclinical processes three or more years before they will show up on other tests. Until very recently, it was only available in a laboratory setting. The testing, called “dark adaptation” (an example of how this affects us would be entering a dark movie theater and waiting until you can see enough to find your seat), is a painless and relatively fast test that can predict whether or not you have the early form of the disease, with an accuracy of more than 90 percent. Early diagnoses can provide an opportunity to make lifestyles changes (low-fat diet, green-leafy vegetables, cessation of smoking, vitamin supplements, protective eyewear), which can slow down or stop the progression of Macular Degeneration. The test is recommended to anyone over the age of 50 who is experiencing changes in their night vision.

Unfortunately, if left undiagnosed and untreated, this disease will progress and can lead to irreversible damage. To get a sense of how things might look to someone with Macular Degeneration, put a glob of Vaseline on the center of your glasses and try looking through it. Your peripheral vision will stay intact, but your central sharp vision will be diminished.

The adage that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” could not be more applicable when it comes to this vision-threatening disease. Take the steps now to help ensure a lifetime of wonderful vision. Your eyes will thank you!

Photo by César Augusto Serna Sz on / CC BY-NC-ND

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