As we age, we notice our bodies working harder than they used to while performing the same usual tasks. Occasionally, parts of the body break down, marking the need for a doctor appointment. The longer we wait, the worse the problem can be.
This is the case with macular degeneration. The disease is typically brought on by age, with the overwhelming majority of cases occurring in people aged 50 or older. In fact, for most, the disease doesn’t become noticeable until after age 85. Even so, you will want to know what symptoms to look out for and what tests can be done.
What Is Macular Degeneration?
Imagine you are looking at a painting. Without macular degeneration, you can see the picture with no problems: The colors are bright, the lines are clear, and there are no gaps. There is a part of your eye called the retina that helps you see this whole painting. Within the retina, there is a piece called the macula, which helps you see the center.
When the macula is damaged, the view begins to disappear. Whether you are near the painting or far away from it, the center of the painting may appear blurry or entirely black. You will still have your peripheral vision, so you may be able to see the edges of the painting just fine.
This partial, central blindness is called macular degeneration. This illness is common and a leading cause of vision loss among the elderly. There is both dry age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and wet AMD. Dry AMD is more common, with nearly 80% of AMD cases being dry. Wet AMD is more serious, though less common, and causes faster vision loss due to abnormal blood vessels.
If you are younger than 50, you likely don’t need to worry about macular degeneration yet. This eye disease occurs in only 2% of people at age 50, but up to 20% of patients above age 85. If you have a relative with macular degeneration, you are significantly more likely to develop AMD yourself.
While genetics are one risk factor for macular degeneration, other medical factors include hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity, and dietary fat. Other general factors relating to this illness include race (more Caucasian Americans are likely to develop AMD than African Americans), light exposure, and smoking. Cigarettes can actually quadruple the likelihood of developing macular degeneration.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for AMD yet, but you should see an optometrist or ophthalmologist frequently if you find out you have AMD. An eye doctor will be able to help you find ways to cope with and work around AMD.
Test for Macular Degeneration
If you think you may have macular degeneration, you can do a small test with an eyesight chart at home before deciding to make an appointment with your doctor.
An Amsler grid helps doctors determine if the macula is damaged prior to dilating your eyes. This grid is full of tiny boxes that guide you as you describe vision problems to the doctor. The grid is filled with boxes in a formation of 20×20 squares.
When completing this eye test chart, wear any normal vision assistance you have, like glasses. Looking at the grid, test one eye at a time. Look at the center dot and try to take note of anywhere that your sight isn’t clear. The following criteria help determine if you have damage to the macula: wavy or broken lines, unequal box sizes or shapes, missing or dark areas in the grid, or an incapability to see all corners of the grid. In this eye test, how many squares you see is important because you may be experiencing the beginning of vision loss.
If you experience any of those criteria, make an appointment with your doctor immediately. You can find a printable eye chart online. Print a chart for each eye you notice trouble with, and mark all areas you notice waves, dark areas, or difficulty seeing. This will help your doctor determine if the problem is in fact macular degeneration and the severity.
There are at least two other tests your doctor may run to confirm a diagnosis. A fluorescein angiography tells the doctor which type of macular degeneration is present. A dye is injected to the patient’s arm, and whether or not this dye leaks into their eye determines if the AMD is wet or dry. The second test is called ocular coherence tomography (OCT), where special rays of light scan the retina and tell the doctor more about the patient’s macula.
Living with Macular Degeneration
If your doctor confirms an AMD diagnosis, a lot may run through your mind. Ask your doctor any questions that come to mind, and listen carefully to what they say. When caught early, your doctor can help you cope with AMD and keep it from spreading rapidly.