Macular degeneration

Helping you understand macular degeneration

Healthy aging doesn’t just include your mind and body — but your eyesight too. Did you know macular degeneration (age-related macular degeneration, or AMD) is the leading cause of vision loss in America?1 Our eyes are powerful machines, but just like any machine, they may get worn down over time. Think of your retina as a camera collecting hundreds of detailed pictures each day. The central part of your retina is called the macula. People living with macular degeneration usually have a macula with cells that are wearing down. This breakdown blurs the central vision needed to see fine detail, recognize faces, read and drive. There are two types (dry and wet) and three stages of macular degeneration.

What’s the difference between dry and wet macular degeneration?

The terms “dry” and “wet” are used to describe the underlying cause.

Dry (atrophic) macular degeneration is the most common.2 Here, the breakdown is caused by small yellow protein deposits under the macula, called drusen. Drusen cause the macula to thin, dry out and eventually stop working. The good news is this type usually progresses more slowly. It’s also important to know that dry might turn wet as the years go on. Work with your doctor to keep monitoring it. 

Wet (exudative or neovascular) macular degeneration is much less common at about 10-15% of cases. Here, unwanted blood vessels grow under the retina and macula. If these new vessels leak fluid, it shifts the retina from its flat (or normal) position. This shift is what distorts vision, but it’s actually scarring from the fluids that leads to vision loss.2

What can I do to prevent macular degeneration?

Lifestyle plays a vital role in our health. Consider these things to to help prevent macular degeneration:3, 4, 5

  • Don’t smoke (major risk factor) or quit smoking
  • Eat a nutritious diet that includes leafy greens rich in carotenoids and omega-3 fatty acids
  • Take daily supplements with antioxidants and zinc
  • Keep your blood pressure and cholesterol at normal levels
  • Exercise often
  • Protect your eyes from UV rays
  • Schedule regular eye exams that include macular degeneration tests
  • Test yourself at home using the Amsler chart to check for signs of macular degeneration

What are symptoms of macular degeneration?

Symptoms of macular degeneration may depend on which stage you’re in — early, intermediate or late. Most people may not experience vision loss in the early or intermediate stages, but they could be seeing changes in their vision. Late stage macular degeneration is when vision loss may become noticeable. Be sure to visit your eye doctor regularly so they can check for drusen and take a look your retina. Catching macular degeneration in the earlier stages is key because treatments may delay or reduce your vision loss.6

If you notice a big change in the quality of your vision or any of the following, visit your doctor right away.1, 4

  • Distortion of straight lines
  • Dark, blurry areas in the center of your vision
  • Whiteout in the center of your vision
  • Difficulty reading fine print
  • Trouble adapting to dimly light rooms
  • Change in color perception (rare)

Keep in mind

People rarely lose their sight completely from macular degeneration. You’ll likely have your peripheral vision and the ability to see objects clearly outside your central view. Treating poor central vision early may help you continue with many daily activities.7

What are treatment options for macular degeneration?

While there’s no cure for macular degeneration, treatments may slow its progression. Talk with your doctor about your options. Some of these may even help improve your vision.1, 4

Typical treatments for dry macular degeneration:

  • Supplements: Vitamins and minerals that support macula health, like vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, zinc and copper.
  • Low vision aids: These devices may help you see better by making nearby objects bigger.

Typical treatments for wet macular degeneration:

  • Anti-angiogenic (anti-VEGF) medications: These drugs may stop new blood vessels from forming, and block current leaks; they’re injected into the eye.
  • Photodynamic laser therapy: This two-step treatment may help get rid of abnormal blood vessels. A dose of medicine is given in the arm, and then the doctor shines a non-thermal laser into the eye to activate the medicine.
  • Low vision aids

What kind of doctor should I see to find out if I have macular degeneration?

Your eye doctor (optometrist or ophthalmologist) can perform regular exams that test for signs of macular degeneration. During your appointment, be sure to mention any symptoms you’ve noticed, and ask about your risk level (including genetics). Depending on your eye health, you may want to visit a retina specialist for a more thorough exam.