Are you an older adult?
Do you have blurred vision?

You might have macular degeneration.   

By Latisha Catchatoorian

Reading a thrilling novel, baking a delicious cake, or watching a favorite movie are some of life’s simple pleasures. But for some older adults these seemingly “simple” tasks can be torturously frustrating.

Patients with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) know these frustrations all too well.

“[Age-related] macular degeneration is a disease that affects the center of the retina, which is the tissue in the back of the eye,” explains Dr. Nitin Gupta, an ophthalmologist at Taylor Retina Center in Raleigh. “Over time, the center of the retina can deteriorate, and patients experience vision loss.”

Retinal photoreceptors help process central vision and turn light into electrical signals. These signals are sent through the optic nerve to the brain, where they are translated into the images we see every day. When the macula is damaged, your central vision may become blurred or dark.

AMD is the leading cause of vision loss in people over the age of 50 in America and affects roughly 11 million individuals. According to the BrightFocus Foundation, this number is expected to double by 2050.

There are two types of AMD. Dry AMD occurs when there is a gradual breakdown of the macula’s light-sensitive cells and its supporting tissue. Wet AMD occurs when abnormal blood vessels grow underneath the retina. These vessels can leak fluid and blood, causing swelling and damage to the macula.

When explaining the difference between dry and wet AMD, Gupta likes to give his patients his sidewalk analogy.

“If you go outside, you see little cracks in the sidewalk. Over time it gets beaten down – that’s kind of like dry AMD. [The sidewalk] is kind of getting a little brittle, but often it’s minimal,” Gupta said. “But [other times] when you go outside, you [may] see the sidewalk and you see weeds and grass growing up from the cracks. [This is like the] blood vessels in wet macular degeneration [leaking] into the retina.”

An AMD diagnosis may seem hopeless, but there are several treatment options available to patients, and just because you may be experiencing vision loss, this does not mean you’ll go blind.

“One misconception [about AMD] is that when people are given a diagnosis, [they think] they’re going to be completely blind. That is rare,” said Dr. Elana Scheiner, an optometrist who specializes in low vision, visually impaired, and legally blind patients.

While there is no complete cure for AMD, there are ways to manage the condition. Common treatments for wet AMD include injections, approved drugs and medications, and certain therapies. For dry AMD patients and/or those with progressive cases, low vision aides such as special glasses can be used to help them perform everyday activities.

Scheiner works with low vision AMD patients through centric view training and has prescribed aides like magnifiers, telescopes, readers, and even special glasses that help a patient watch television. Scheiner starts every low vision exam by asking patients to make a wish list of visual goals. She said some of her patients simply want to be able to see pictures of their grandchildren.  

One of Gupta’s wet AMD patients was an artist who was unable to paint for a year because her vision was so poor. After receiving injection treatments and successfully improving her vision, she presented Gupta with a finished painting with tears in the very eyes he had helped treat.

“It’s so rewarding to be able to work with patients and improve their quality of life,” he said.

There’s no surefire way to predict AMD, although high blood pressure, smoking, ethnicity (Caucasians are more predisposed to the condition), and genetics can all increase your risk of developing it. The most important way to get control of your AMD is to catch it early on if you notice signs of blurred central vision, and schedule an appointment with your eye doctor.