Imagine your eye as a camera. Your pupil, the dark part in the middle of your eye behind the thin membrane of the cornea and inside the colored iris, is the viewfinder. The iris adjusts the pupil depending on the amount of light, much like the aperture of a camera would. Behind the pupil is a tiny but very powerful lens that adjusts and focuses images from the outside world like the focusing ring on a camera.
Covering the inside back of your eye is another thin membrane, the retina. The retina is like film in a camera—it’s light sensitive and is where outside images come into focus. The images are received by rods and cones in the retina, which are sensitive to light, dark, and color. In the middle of the retina is the macula, which controls visual acuity.
What’s so great about the macula?
The macula’s job is to receive straight-ahead, sharp images used to decipher visual perception. This is what allows our eyes to focus on fine detail, so we can do things like read a book, recognize faces, watch television, drive a car, and other visual tasks involving fine detail.
What is macular degeneration?
Macular Degeneration is the deterioration—or break down—of the macula, which results in distortion or loss of central vision. Those affected still have peripheral vision; however, central vision is blurred, white, blacked out, or grainy. Some people with the disease are still able to do regular daily activities, while others have vision problems that qualify for legal blindness. Macular degeneration is lifelong and incurable.
Two types of macular degeneration:
- “Dry” macular degeneration: 85-90% of people have dry macular degeneration. This disease progresses slowly over time. Small yellow deposits, called drusen, form under the macula. Nearly everyone over 50 years old has at least one drusen.
- “Wet” macular degeneration: 10-15% of people have wet macular degeneration. This disease progresses rapidly and results in severe vision loss. Abnormal blood vessels grow under the retina and macula. They may leak and move the macula, distorting central vision.
According to the American Macular Degeneration Foundation, Macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss, affecting 10 million Americans—more than cataracts and glaucoma combined.
Causes and risk factors
Although exact causes are unknown, research suggests that both genetic and environmental factors are involved.
The biggest risk factor for macular degeneration is age, specifically those over the age of 55. Other risk factors include family history of the disease, smoking, and race (Caucasians being the most at risk).
There is yet to be a cure for macular degeneration, although some types of medications and procedures have had success slowing the progression of the disease.
Some treatment options include:
- Procedures: laser therapy, photodynamic laser therapy
- Surgeries: submacular surgery, retinal translocation
- Vision aids
- Supplements: lutein, vitamin C and E, beta-carotene, zinc, copper, omega-3 fatty acids.
Lifestyle changes can greatly affect your chances of avoiding the disease. Be sure to exercise regularly, stop smoking, eat a healthy diet, and wear sunglasses to avoid ultraviolet light.
Most importantly, be sure to schedule and attend regular eye exams with your optometrist. Early detection increases the success of treatment.