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What is age-related macular degeneration?

Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of painless central vision loss in adults over the age of 50. In order to understand this condition, we must understand how the cells at the back of our eyes function.

The cells in our retina are constantly working to turn light into a chemical signal to be sent to our brain. As they are working, they use a lot of energy and create a lot of waste products. In a normal functioning retina, these waste products are removed from our eyes. However, in some cases these waste products build up and create small waste bundles called drusen. When drusen occur in our macula, which is the part of the retina responsible for the very center of our vision, it is called age-related macular degeneration.

There are two types of ARMD: dry and wet. Dry ARMD is the more common and the less vision-threatening form of ARMD. With dry ARMD, drusen slowly increase in size over several years and begin to deteriorate the retina. Over time these “waste products” are absorbed back into the system, leaving behind an area of damaged retina that can no longer detect light. The damage to the retina may result in visual distortions, increased blurriness, difficulty reading and recognizing faces. When the condition progresses to an intermediate-stage, your eye doctor may give you a mixture of vitamins and minerals combined into a single tablet, known as AREDS II, which reduces the risk of developing advanced ARMD. Having ARMD can be difficult and it can be helpful to ask your eye doctor about the many vision aids that are available to help you to manage your changing vision, such as a grid to monitor your vision at home.

Although vision loss from dry ARMD is irreversible, it is important to continue monitoring your vision regularly as dry ARMD can progress to wet ARMD. While wet ARMD is less common than dry ARMD, it is a more serious condition. Wet ARMD is categorized by the growth of abnormal blood vessels in the damaged area of the retina which can cause sudden changes in your central vision if the new vessels leak blood into the eye. If wet ARMD is caught early, treatment with medications such as Lucentis or Avastin may result in visual improvement.

Risk factors for developing ARMD include having a family history of ARMD, race (with Caucasians having the highest risk level), hypertension, smoking, obesity and consuming a diet high in processed and packaged foods. If you are worried about your eye health or have a family history of ARMD, there are several steps you can take to help slow progression such as managing your medical conditions with medications, giving up smoking, exercising regularly, protecting your eyes from UV exposure with sunglasses or blue light blocking lenses and incorporating more dark leafy green and orange vegetables and omega-3s into your diet.

Since an early diagnosis is key to slowing progression of ARMD, it is important to have your eyes examined on a regular basis. Visit your eye doctor to get a thorough eye exam and to receive more information on age related macular degeneration.

Jasleen Kaur is an optometrist at Nittany Eye Associates.