What you should know about age-related macular degeneration

Ask most people what eye disease is responsible for the greatest incidence of vision loss in the over-65 population and they would probably answer glaucoma.

But actually, age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of vision loss in people over the age of 65, causing difficulty for activities such as reading and driving.

What is AMD?

AMD causes damage to the macula, the small spot on the retina that helps us see clearly as well as most of our color vision. When the cells in the macula are damaged, central vision becomes blurry even though peripheral or side vision remains stable.

There are two types of AMD: dry and wet. Dry AMD is more common – about 90% of people who have AMD have the dry form – and it is characterized by the thinning and aging of the macular tissue. Wet AMD is the more serious form of the condition, and it occurs when blood vessels grow behind the macula and leak fluid into it, causing blind spots.

AMD happens very slowly in some people and it can happen in only one eye or both eyes. Some who have it may not experience vision loss for a long time, while for others, AMD progresses faster.

Can AMD be prevented?

Research shows that you may be able to lower your risk for AMD or slow its progression. Dr. Philp Painter, chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare Medicare and Retirement, says that quitting smoking, eating leafy, green vegetables and maintaining a good blood pressure and cholesterol level can help.

Another important step is to get dilated eye exams and vision tests from your eye health professional to diagnose the condition and track any progression. Tell your eye doctor if others in your family have been diagnosed with AMD because it is a hereditary condition.

How is AMD treated?

Several prescription medications covered under Medicare Part B can be used to treat AMD. People must meet the requirements established by Medicare to have the prescription medication covered by their insurance plan.

There are also promising over-the-counter treatments for AMD. The National Eye Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, conducted two age-related eye disease studies, which showed that AMD progression could be slowed when people took high doses of a specific set of vitamins and minerals, including vitamins C and E, copper, omega-3 fatty acids and zinc. Remember to check with your doctor, eye professional and pharmacist to see if these non-prescription medications might be good for you.

Early AMD has no symptoms, so it is important to get regular eye exams. Nearly all UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage plans offer $0 copays on routine vision exams. Vision changes can be a normal part of aging, but be sure to make note of any changes you experience and talk with your doctor. May is Health Vision Month, so it’s a great time to make an appointment if you’ve been putting it off.

Benefits vary by plans. Limitations and exclusions apply.

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