Macular degeneration, also known as age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the name given to a group of chronic, degenerative retinal eye diseases that cause progressive loss of central vision, leaving the peripheral or side vision intact. It affects the ability to read, drive, recognise faces and perform activities that require detailed vision. Macular degeneration is the leading cause of legal blindness and severe vision loss in Australia, responsible for 50% of all cases of blindness.
Macular degeneration is usually related to ageing and most frequently affects people over the age of 50. However, it is not a normal or inevitable consequence of ageing.
Macular degeneration is progressive and painless and does not result in total vision loss.
Stages of macular degeneration
Macular degeneration is classified as:
Early and intermediate stage
Caused by the progressive build-up of waste material (drusen) under the retina. These stages typically have little or no impact on vision, however some people with the intermediate stage may notice changes to their central vision. Currently there is no treatment available for the early and intermediate stages. Research is being conducted to develop treatments.
Progression to late stage may occur, however progression in each eye can differ. Diet and lifestyle are important for maintaining healthy eyes. A select combination of vitamins and minerals may reduce the risk of progression in some individuals. Advice from an eye care professional should be sought.
This is the vision impairing stage, which can be further divided into dry (atrophic) macular degeneration or wet (neovascular) macular degeneration.
Dry (atrophic): caused by the gradual atrophy (loss) of retinal cells. It may lead to a gradual loss of central vision. Currently there is no treatment available for the dry form. Research is being conducted to develop treatments.
Wet (neovascular): caused by the formation of fragile blood vessels which leak fluid and blood within and under the retina. It often leads to a rapid loss of central vision. Loss of vision in one eye may go unnoticed if vision in the fellow eye is good. Regular vision testing of each eye in turn is recommended.
Early detection is critical
The early detection of any form of macular degeneration is crucial to saving sight. Difficulty with vision should never be dismissed as just a part of getting older. In its early stages macular degeneration may not result in noticeable visual symptoms but it can be detected with an eye examination.
The earlier that macular degeneration is detected the earlier that steps can be undertaken to help slow its progression and save sight through treatment and/or lifestyle modifications.
Any sudden changes to vision should be treated as a medical emergency. See an optometrist or ophthalmologist immediately.
About one in seven Australians – or 1.29 million people – over the age of 50 years has some evidence of this disease.
Approximately 17% of these people (over 200,000) will experience vision impairment. Almost 15% of Australians over 80 years (around 160,000) have vision loss or blindness from age-related macular degeneration.