Age-Related Macular Degeneration
What is age-related macular degeneration?
Age-related macular degeneration is a disease that causes blurring of your central vision. The blurring happens because of damage to the macula, a small area at the back of the eye. The macula helps you see the fine detail in things that your eyes are focusing on.
Macular degeneration makes it harder to do things that require sharp central vision, like reading, driving, and recognizing faces. It does not affect side vision, so it does not lead to complete blindness.
There are two types of macular degeneration—wet and dry. The dry form is by far the most common type. The wet form is much less common, but it happens more quickly and is more severe.
You may have either type in just one eye, but over time you may get it in the other eye too.
What causes macular degeneration?
Macular degeneration is the result of damage to the nerve cells in the macula. The process that leads to this damage is different for each type.
- The dry form is a gradual process. As you age, the cells in the macula start to thin and break down, and waste deposits build up in the back of the eye. Over time, this damages the macula.
- The wet form happens when abnormal blood vessels grow in the back of the eye. These blood vessels break easily and leak blood and fluid under the macula. This can quickly damage the macula and distort your central vision.
Experts are still studying the causes of both forms.
What are the symptoms?
The main symptom of macular degeneration is dim or fuzzy central vision. Objects may look warped or smaller than they really are. You may have a blank or blind spot in the center of your field of vision. As the disease gets worse, you may have trouble with tasks like reading and driving.
If you have the dry form, your vision will probably become blurry slowly. You may have it for several years before it affects your ability to read, drive, and do everyday activities.
Often the first symptom of the wet form is that straight lines look wavy or curved. In the wet form, vision loss happens quickly and can be severe.
How is macular degeneration diagnosed?
A doctor can usually detect macular degeneration by doing a regular eye exam and asking questions about your past health. You may have some vision tests, including an ophthalmoscopy. This test lets your doctor look at the inside of your eye. If you have macular degeneration, your doctor may see drusen. These are yellowish white waste deposits that can build up at the back of the eye.
How is it treated?
At this time, there is no cure for macular degeneration. But experts are exploring many new treatments that hold hope for the future. Your doctor can keep you up to date on any changes in treatment that might help you.
Eating food that contains lots of antioxidant vitamins and minerals may help slow down vision loss in some people with moderate to severe macular degeneration.1 Talk to your doctor about whether this might help you.
These treatments may slow down vision loss from the wet form of macular degeneration:
- Photodynamic therapy.
- Injections of medicine into your eye.
- Laser surgery.
How can you cope with vision problems?
There are many things you can do at home to make the most of your remaining vision. Try using aids like magnifying glasses, brighter lighting, and large-print books. Having a good support network is important too.
If you need more help, your doctor may refer you to an occupational therapist or rehabilitation specialist. These professionals can help you get the tools and training you need to cope with reduced vision. Local agencies may also offer services for people with vision loss.
It can be scary to find out that you have a vision problem that will get worse. It is common to have a range of emotions. But if you feel very sad or hopeless, talk to your doctor.
Frequently Asked Questions
Learning about age-related macular degeneration (AMD):
Living with AMD:
Vision loss from age-related macular degeneration is caused by damage to the light-detecting nerve cells in the macula. The cause of this damage to the nerve cells is unknown.
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) can cause these symptoms:
- Central vision becomes dim, fuzzy, or less sharp.
- Reading requires more light than it did in the past.
- You find it harder to see people's faces clearly.
- Objects appear distorted or smaller than they really are.
- A new blank or blind spot develops in your central field of vision.
- Straight lines begin to appear wavy or curved. This is usually the first symptom of wet AMD.
- You have a loss of central vision that does not go away or becomes worse over time. The loss may be severe and rapid if you have wet AMD.
The symptoms of wet and dry AMD differ in two important ways:
- How fast the vision changes are
How bad the vision changes are
- Dry AMD symptoms are usually mild at first. Later, the symptoms can be more severe.
- Wet AMD tends to cause more severe vision changes and vision loss.
About 9 out of 10 people with macular degeneration have the dry form. That means about 1 out of 10 have the wet form.2 A small percentage of people who have dry AMD eventually develop wet AMD.
Even though AMD may affect central vision, it doesn't cause complete blindness. And most people keep good side vision.
When these cells and blood vessels stop working, the nerve cells in the macula that detect light can't work as well as they used to. As more and more of the nerve cells in the macula break down, vision loss very slowly gets worse.
You may have the disease for several years before it affects how you are able to read, drive, and do everyday activities. If you have AMD in only one eye, you may not notice minor vision changes, because your unaffected eye automatically makes up for vision problems in your other eye.
Wet AMD begins with the growth of abnormal blood vessels under the macula. These blood vessels break easily. They leak blood and fluid and cause scar tissue, all of which push against the macula. They change the macula's shape and cause it to send distorted images to your brain. Straight lines begin to appear wavy or curved, and objects may seem oddly shaped or smaller.
Scar tissue also cuts off the macula from the normal support cells that it needs in order to work. Nerve cells in the macula begin to die, causing a loss of central vision.
If not treated, the scar beneath the macula may continue to grow, affecting more and more of the nerve cells in the macula. Vision loss gets worse as more of the macula becomes involved. The entire macula may be destroyed by this process, resulting in a complete loss of central vision.
Treatment can sometimes delay or prevent further vision loss, but it cannot reverse vision loss that has already occurred.
With wet AMD, vision loss can happen fast—within months or even weeks. This can make it hard to adjust to the vision loss.
What Increases Your Risk
The main things that put you at risk (risk factors) for age-related macular degeneration (AMD) include:
- Older age. Age is the biggest risk factor for getting AMD. After age 75, more than 30 out of 100 people may have some form of AMD. But in people ages 43 to 54, fewer than 10 out of 100 have it.1
- A family history of the disease. You are much more likely to get AMD if a close relative has it.
- Race. Whites appear to have a higher risk than blacks or Hispanics.
- Smoking. People who smoke are about twice as likely to develop AMD than nonsmokers. The risk appears to be higher for people who have been heavy smokers or who have smoked for a long time.1
- One eye with wet AMD. Nearly half of people with wet AMD in one eye get wet AMD in the other eye within 5 years.2
Other risk factors for developing AMD may include:1
- Deposits at the back of the eye, called drusen. Eyes with large, soft drusen deposits are at a greater risk for developing abnormal blood vessels and wet AMD.
- A diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol.
- Not getting enough carotenoids, antioxidant vitamins, and zinc in your diet.
When To Call a Doctor
Call your doctor immediately if:
- You have a sudden, rapid loss of vision.
- You suddenly notice a new blank or dark spot in the center of your vision that does not go away.
- Straight lines appear wavy or curved, or objects begin to change size or shape or appear distorted.
see either of the following on an
- Lines that change or appear wavy and curved
- A blank spot that you have not noticed before in the grid
Your doctor will refer you to an eye doctor (ophthalmologist) if needed.
Call your doctor to discuss whether you need an eye exam if:
- You need more light to read than you used to.
- Colors seem faded or less vivid than they used to.
- Your vision seems to be getting more blurry.
Watchful waiting means to take a wait-and-see approach.
Watchful waiting is not appropriate if you have rapid vision loss or sudden changes in your vision. If you have any rapid vision changes, see your doctor as soon as possible. Immediate treatment may be able to slow vision loss caused by wet AMD. Delaying treatment for wet AMD could mean further loss of central vision.
If you have mild, slow vision loss, such as that caused by dry age-related macular degeneration (dry AMD), watchful waiting is appropriate. There is no treatment for dry AMD. And you may never develop vision loss to the point that it disrupts your regular lifestyle.
Who to see
An ophthalmologist who specializes in problems with the retina and macula can diagnose which type of AMD you have. Also, laser surgery and medicine injections for wet AMD are done by an ophthalmologist.
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
Exams and Tests
A doctor can usually detect age-related macular degeneration (AMD) with a regular eye exam. The doctor first will find out more about your symptoms, past eye problems, and other health conditions by asking you about your medical history.
Visual acuity test
The doctor will test your central vision with a visual acuity test. During this test, you cover one eye and read letters on a wall chart 20 ft (6.1 m) away. Central vision gets worse over time in a person with AMD, and a visual acuity test can measure whether your vision has gotten worse since your last exam. The doctor may also test your visual field, which includes both your central vision and side (peripheral) vision.
Your doctor will look inside your eye using ophthalmoscopy. If you have AMD, your doctor may see drusen, which appear as yellowish white spots under the retina. Although some small drusen can usually be found in the macula as a normal result of aging, the presence of numerous large drusen is associated with AMD.1
Amsler grid test
For more information on vision testing, see the topic Vision Tests.
If your doctor thinks that you may have wet AMD, you may also have a test called an eye angiogram or an optical coherence tomography (OCT) to find out if abnormal blood vessels are growing beneath the macula. The test can also locate leaky blood vessels under the macula and help your doctor find out if they can be treated.
If you have AMD and some loss of vision, your doctor may do a low-vision evaluation to help find ways for you to make the most of your remaining vision and keep your quality of life.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that all people between 40 and 54 years of age have a comprehensive eye exam every 2 to 4 years to help detect AMD early. The following table summarizes the recommendations for comprehensive eye exams:3
|Age (years)||When to get a comprehensive eye exam|
|65 or older||Every 1–2 years|
|55–64||Every 1–3 years|
|40–54||Every 2–4 years|
|Younger than 40||5–10 years|
Regular use of an Amsler grid can detect the progression of dry AMD to wet AMD. People who have dry AMD and those who have an increased risk for developing AMD should use the Amsler grid. Your doctor can give you one to use at home.
There is no cure for age-related macular degeneration, but certain treatments may delay vision loss.
Finding out that you have AMD can be very hard. Your doctor can refer you to counselors who specialize in helping people adjust to living with low vision.
Follow your doctor's advice for having regular exams and for watching the condition at home (such as using an Amsler grid), because dry AMD can sometimes develop into wet AMD.
Vitamins and diet changes may help slow vision loss. For more information, see Home Treatment.
Treatment for wet AMD can sometimes slow down or delay further damage to your central vision. But in most cases, growth of fragile new blood vessels in wet AMD starts again. And even repeated treatment is usually not effective over the long term in preventing some loss of central vision.
Treatments that may slow vision loss for a few people include:
- Laser surgery.
- Photodynamic therapy. For more information, see Other Treatment.
Because wet AMD often causes rapid and severe loss of central vision, it is important not to delay treatment if your doctor recommends it.
You can't prevent age-related macular degeneration (AMD). But there are some steps you can take that may lower your risk of getting it.
- Have regular eye exams. Eye exams may help you find out if you are at risk for AMD or, if you have AMD, may detect it early. Early detection can sometimes delay loss of vision.
- Don't smoke. People who smoke may be twice as likely to develop AMD than those who don't smoke.1 Even after you stop smoking, this increased risk may persist for many years.
- Eat plenty of fruits and nuts. Eating regular servings of fruits and nuts may lower your chances of getting AMD.4
Although there's no treatment that can cure age-related macular degeneration, there are steps you can take to keep it from getting worse. These steps may help prevent wet AMD if you already have the dry form:
- Eat a diet rich in dark green, leafy vegetables (such as spinach). Your doctor may also advise you to take antioxidant vitamins and zinc. A diet rich in vitamins may slow the progression of AMD and delay vision loss. But this treatment is most effective if you already have moderate AMD. Check with your doctor before taking any supplements. Some can have harmful side effects, especially in high doses.1
- Eat fish. Eating fish, a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, may lower your chances of getting AMD.1
- Limit harmful fats. Too much saturated fat and cholesterol in your diet may increase your risk that AMD will get worse.1
- Get regular exercise, and stay at a healthy weight. These choices may lower your risk of developing wet AMD.5
People with AMD should check the vision in both eyes using an Amsler grid every day or as often as the doctor recommends. If any of the lines on the grid change or begin to appear wavy and curved, or if you notice that your vision is getting worse, call your doctor.
Living with reduced vision
Reduced vision or vision loss from AMD can affect your life in many ways. How much it will affect you depends on your lifestyle and on how bad your vision loss is. Work with your doctor to find ways to make the best use of your remaining vision. There are things that you can do to adjust and keep your quality of life as much as possible.
It is normal to feel unhappy about your loss of vision. But if your feelings of sadness are severe or do not improve, you may develop depression, which requires treatment. If you need help in dealing with your feelings about AMD, talk to your doctor and to your family and friends. Your doctor can also refer you to a counselor who specializes in helping people adjust to living with limited vision.
Anti-VEGF medicines, such as bevacizumab (Avastin) and ranibizumab (Lucentis), can slow the vision loss that is linked to wet AMD. These medicines are injected into the eye.
Surgery doesn't cure wet AMD, but it can sometimes slow down or prevent further loss of central vision. Early surgery is vital to slowing down vision loss, which can be rapid.
But surgery is an option for less than one-fourth of people who have wet AMD.6 It is often hard to know in advance whether laser surgery will do more harm than good.
By the time many people are diagnosed with wet AMD, it is often too late for surgery to provide much benefit. Even with treatment, many people will still go on to lose more of their central vision.
Currently, surgery is not used to treat dry AMD. Laser surgery to remove deposits called drusen may slow vision loss in people with dry AMD, but experts think that it may increase the chance of developing wet AMD. Researchers are currently doing studies to see if this is an effective treatment.2
Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is used to treat wet AMD. It uses a light-sensitive dye to block abnormal blood vessels beneath the macula.
It can only be used in a few cases.6
Researchers are investigating tiny implants in the retina and other devices that replace damaged cells that capture light and send information to the brain. It likely will be several years before we know what role these devices will play in treating AMD. But promising results from early studies show that these devices may someday be used to restore lost vision.
Other Places To Get Help
|P.O. Box 429098|
|San Francisco, CA 94142-9098|
EyeCare America is a public service program of the Foundation of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. This site aims to raise awareness about eye diseases and eye care. It has information about eye conditions, treatments, and general eye health. You can check to see if you qualify for a free eye exam.
|Macular Degeneration Foundation|
|P.O. Box 531313|
|Henderson, NV 89053|
The Macular Degeneration Foundation provides extensive online explanations about various aspects of macular degeneration. It also includes information about new research and treatments. The organization publishes an electronic newsletter called The Magnifier. Distributed free by e-mail, it includes news regarding clinical trials, recent reports in the media, and information about new resources available over the Internet.
|Macular Degeneration Partnership|
|8733 Beverly Boulevard|
|Los Angeles, CA 90048|
The Macular Degeneration Partnership is a nonprofit organization that offers comprehensive, easily understood, and up-to-date information about macular degeneration through the Internet, telephone, public events, and printed materials. The organization also supports research and coordinates advocacy efforts.
|Macular Degeneration Research|
|22512 Gateway Center Drive|
|Clarksburg, MD 20871|
The American Health Assistance Foundation (AHAF) is a nonprofit organization that funds research seeking cures for Alzheimer's disease, age-related macular degeneration, and glaucoma. This Web site provides information about risk factors, symptoms, treatment options, and coping strategies for age-related macular degeneration.
|National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health|
|31 Center Drive MSC 2510|
|Bethesda, MD 20892-2510|
As part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the National Eye Institute provides information on eye diseases and vision research. Publications are available to the public at no charge. The Web site includes links to various information resources.
- American Academy of Ophthalmology (2008). Age-Related Macular Degeneration (Preferred Practice Pattern). San Francisco: American Academy of Ophthalmology. Available online: http://one.aao.org/CE/PracticeGuidelines/PPP.aspx.
- Arnold J, Heriot W (2007). AMD, search date March 2006. Online version of BMJ Clinical Evidence: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.
- American Academy of Ophthalmology (2010). Comprehensive Adult Medical Eye Evaluation, Preferred Practice Pattern. San Francisco: American Academy of Ophthalmology. Available online: http://one.aao.org/CE/PracticeGuidelines/PPP.aspx.
- Cho E, et al. (2004). Prospective study of intake of fruits, vegetables, vitamins, and carotenoids and risk of age-related maculopathy. Archives of Ophthalmology, 122(6): 883–892.
- Seddon JM, et al. (2003). Progression of age-related macular degeneration: Association with body mass index, waist circumference, and waist-hip ratio. Archives of Ophthalmology, 121(6): 785–792.
- Rosenfeld PJ, et al. (2009). Age-related macular degeneration. In M Yanoff et al., eds., Ophthalmology, 3rd ed., pp. 658–673. Edinburgh: Mosby Elsevier.
Other Works Consulted
- American Academy of Ophthalmology (2007). Vision Rehabilitation for Adults (Preferred Practice Pattern). San Francisco: American Academy of Ophthalmology. Also available online: http://one.aao.org/CE/PracticeGuidelines/PPP.aspx.
- Despriet DG, et al. (2006). Complement factor H polymorphism, complement activators, and risk of age-related macular degeneration. JAMA, 296(3): 301–309.
|Primary Medical Reviewer||E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||Steven T. Charles, MD - Ophthalmology|
|Last Revised||December 14, 2011|
Last Revised: December 14, 2011
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