I can understand why you would be concerned about your loved one developing macular degeneration; after all, it is the leading cause of vision loss in people over 50. According to The National Eye Institute, the number of people diagnosed with MD is expected to exceed five million by 2050. Those staggering statistics mean that your best friend’s mother is certainly not the only one, and that’s why it’s smart for you to educate yourself about this eye disease.
Clearing It Up
What is macular degeneration, anyway? The macula is a small spot near the center of your retina, and it’s essential for clear, central vision. When that area of the inner eye deteriorates, the field of vision can be compromised, leading to a loss of central vision that allows you to read, drive, recognize faces, and even perform some activities of daily living. MD does not lead to total blindness, but it is debilitating enough that it may limit a senior’s ability to live independently.
MD is diagnosed in stages, and can be either dry, which refers to a breakdown of the cells in the macula, or wet, which occurs when abnormal blood vessels grow within the retina. Wet is less common and more severe, and it is possible to have both kinds of MD in either one or both eyes. The stages of MD go from early, which may be asymptomatic or include mild blurred vision, to intermediate and late stage, at which point treatment may not reverse the damage so much as slow or stop the progression.
You may be at risk for developing macular degeneration if you have a family history of the disease, but here are some of the other risk factors that do not involve genetics:
- Smoking, which doubles the risk
- Age, over the age of 50
- Race, as it is more common in Caucasians
- Gender, more women than men
- Cardiovascular disease
- Prolonged sun exposure
The good news is that some of these factors are behaviors that can be changed, so encouraging healthy habits for your senior can make a difference in eye health as well as overall fitness and wellbeing.
What To Look For
Because MD does not have a lot of symptoms, it is important for your loved one to get regular eye exams. This condition is diagnosed through a series of tests, which may include a visual acuity screening, eye dilation, and an amsler grid screening. Any signs of central vision loss can indicate that macular degeneration exists, and your ophthalmologist may recommend additional testing to determine staging and type. Even if your senior does not complain about a loss or change in vision, he or she should still have an annual eye exam to monitor for vision changes over time.
Since lifestyle and behavior can be risk factors, modifications may reduce the risk for macular degeneration. In the early stages of the disease, your loved one can and should stop smoking, exercise regularly maintain a healthy blood pressure and cholesterol level, and eat a healthy diet with plenty of leafy green vegetables and fish.
Medical evidence shows that some high-dose vitamins may also help at the intermediate and late stages of MD, specifically vitamins C, E, zinc, copper, and lutein. If your loved one suffers from wet MD, he or she may be a candidate for a series of injections, surgery, or laser treatments, each of which can target the abnormal blood vessel growth. These treatments cannot reverse the damage, but they may be able to slow it down.
If your senior has been diagnosed with late stage MD, he or she may be able to receive vision rehabilitation to adjust to any limitations and what vision remains. There are also devices your loved one can employ, such as a large magnifier or high-powered lenses in eyeglasses, to accommodate his or her ability. Some seniors can tell time with talking clocks or read with large-print or audio books, and other smart technology may also make daily life easier.
My advice is to stop worrying about the what ifs and schedule an eye exam for your mother. That way, you’ll know how concerned you need to be and what you can do to make her life easier. You can also provide support for your friend, now that you know what she is going through with her own elderly parent.
Best of luck!