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Macular Degeneration Awareness Month

February is Macular Degeneration Awareness Month and we would like to bring attention to this disease that affects about 3 million people in the United States each year. Macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss among people over 50 years old and is caused by damage to the macula. It is characterized by a blurred area in the center of your vision which can grow and create blank spots, making everyday activities more difficult.

To understand macular degeneration, it is first important to understand what the macula does. The macula is a small spot near the retina that is responsible for sharp central vision. It is located in the back of the eye and is the most sensitive part of the retina. The macula is made up of millions of light sensing cells and the light it receives is then translated through the retina into electrical signals to the brain. The brain then uses those electrical signals to create the images that we see. When the macula is damaged, your central vision may be distorted, dark, and/or blurry.

Age is the most common risk factor of macular degeneration, affecting mostly people who are 60 or older, but there are a few other risk factors including family history and race. Macular degeneration is more common in Caucasians than in African-Americans or Hispanic/Latinos and there is an increased risk if there is a family history of the disease. There are few outside factors that can help decrease the risk; they include exercise, maintaining normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels, eating plenty of green leafy vegetables and fish, as well as avoiding smoking. Research shows that cigarette smokers have two times the risk of developing macular degeneration.

There are three stages of macular degeneration. The early stage is diagnosed by the presence of small to medium fatty proteins, called drusen. There is typically no vision loss in the early stages. The intermediate stage is when there are larger drusen and/or pigment change in the retina. There may be some vision loss or distortion among people with intermediate macular degeneration, but typically there are no symptoms. Therefore, both the early and intermediate stages can only be diagnosed through a comprehensive eye exam.

The late stage of macular degeneration includes two types which are geographic atrophy and neovascular. Geographic atrophy is when there is a gradual breakdown of the light sensing cells in the macula, causing vision loss. Neovascular macular degeneration happens when abnormal blood vessels grow underneath the retina and leak fluid and blood, causing swelling and damage to the macula. This second type is more sudden and the damage can be rapid and severe, unlike the gradual onset of geographic atrophy. Both types can appear in just one eye, or in both.

Macular degeneration is diagnosed with a comprehensive eye exam and while there is no cure, with early diagnosis you and your optometrist can discuss a supplement regimen and/or vision therapy that can help slow the progression of the disease. Macular degeneration, in itself, does not lead to complete blindness with no ability to see, but can interfere with your everyday activities such as driving, reading, writing and recognizing faces. If you have a family history of macular degeneration, or are experiencing vision distortion or loss, you can schedule your next exam by clicking here.