Q: What is it?
A: Macular degeneration is a degenerative eye disease of the blood vessels located in the macula which is part of the retina. The macula is responsible for sharp central vision. The most common type is senile macular degeneration which is associated with the aging process. Other types include those caused by nearsightedness, by heredity, by other bodily disorders such as infection or general disease (arteriosclerosis, diabetes), by severe injury to the eye, or by exposure to excessive light. There is also a condition known as juvenile macular degeneration which affects children. Most anyone can get macular degeneration. Macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in persons age 75 and over and is the most common cause of new cases of blindness among those who are 65 and over. The disease may be hereditary in young people and sometimes in adults. Hereditary conditions include Best's disease, Stargardt's disease, and fundus favimaculatus or "flecked retina".
Q: What causes it?
A: With time, the retinal tissue breaks down and becomes thin. This deterioration causes a loss of function of the macula. In about 10% of the cases, aging of the retina is compounded by leakage of the tiny blood vessels which nourish the retina. Growth of new, abnormal blood vessels in the scar tissue that forms from the leaking blood vessels is also common. Blood and leaking fluid destroy the macula, causing vision to become distorted and blurred.
Q: What are the signs and symptoms?
A: The most notable symptom of macular degeneration is blurry or distorted central vision. Difficulty in reading, doing close work, or driving may be noticed. A person with macular degeneration may also experience blurry words on a page, distortion at the center of vision, a dark or empty area in the center of vision, or the distortion of lines. Macular degeneration may also cause a dimming of color vision. Fortunately, the disease does not cause total blindness, as side vision is not affected. Macular degeneration only affects central and color vision. Macular degeneration can be determined by using a lighted instrument called an ophthalmoscope to examine the retina. In addition, some special tests may also be administered. The Amsler Grid Test is used to detect blind spots or distortions. A color vision test will indicate damage to the macula if the patient cannot detect symbols or letters camouflaged in colored patterns.
If macular degeneration is detected, a procedure called fluorescein angiography may be done to check for blood vessel leakage.
Q: How is it treated?
A: Despite ongoing medical research, there is no cure yet for the condition. There are a number of treatments designed to help individuals cope with the vision impairment, and various low vision optical devices can help to minimize the effects of macular degeneration. Because side vision is usually not affected, a person's remaining sight can be very useful. A wide range of support services, programs and devices are available to help people with macular degeneration continue their favorite activities.