Age-related macular degeneration, commonly referred to as AMD, is the number one cause of severe loss of vision among Americans over the age of 50. Different from regular macular degeneration, it’s a progressive illness that affects nearly 15 million seniors in the United States — and tens of millions more across the globe.
AMD worsens as you get older too. It hits close to 25 percent of adults over the age of 65, but the number increases to a whopping 40 percent of those at least 74 years old. With more than 200,000 new cases of age-related macular degeneration diagnosed every year, the numbers continue to rise with the baby boomers reaching retirement age. In 2016, about one in three seniors have some level of AMD.
AMD delivers its devastating consequences on themacula of the eye, which is where you have the sharpest central sight. It’s through the macula that you are able to:
You won’t go completely blind due to AMD, but you will eventually lose your entire central vision. That leaves you with only peripheral vision, able to see only what some people refer to as “out of the corner of your eye.” Age-related macular degeneration leaves you with only dim shadows or black holes in your central line of vision with just the ability to view images around the edges of your sightline.
Age-related macular degeneration doesn’t affect everyone in the same way or at the same pace. AMD can progress slowly over time for some people, while in others, it can come on rapidly. It can affect one or both eyes. For some, the only effect is that light isn’t as bright as it once was, but for others, the effect is devastating, as they lose all central vision.
The macula is the most sensitive part of your eyes, made of millions of light-sensing cells located in the back of your eye on the retina. The retina is the part of your eye that translates light into electrical signals that then are relayed to your brain by way of the optic nerve.
Two basic forms of AMD can lead to vision loss: wet and dry. Wet macular degeneration is less common and refers to the neurovascular effects of the disease. New blood vessels actually grow on your retina in places where they aren’t supposed to, and that causes the AMD symptoms.
Dry macular degeneration, on the other hand, is the most common and the most deteriorating. It affects nearly 90 percent of seniors with AMD, but its symptoms aren’t necessarily as severe as the wet form’s in all patients. Dry macular degeneration actually is an early stage of the disease, so it hasn’t yet affected the nerves. Instead, it results from the deterioration of the macular tissue, combined with pigment deposits in the affected eye.
Wet and dry AMD share many of the same symptoms. While the symptoms in both often come on in stages, wet AMD’s symptoms typically come on more suddenly and worsen more quickly than the symptoms of dry AMD. Common signs include the following:
Since AMD rarely affects your peripheral vision, you won’t experience total blindness, but as the disease progresses through intermediate stages, the drusen become bigger and your retina may begin to lose some of its color. You will notice the most drastic changes in your vision when you reach the third stage of AMD — slowly with dry AMD and quickly when it’s endovascular, or wet, AMD.
Regular visits to your ophthalmologist prepare you for the changes. But if you don’t make those regular appointments, be sure to see your medical eye doctor when:
Little is known about the causes of age-related macular degeneration, although research continues to escalate as baby boomers demand more answers. While heredity plays a role in the condition, lifestyle also can affect the onset of AMD. Your risk of developing the debilitating eye disease increases with:
Your ophthalmologist has an array of tools on hand to definitively diagnose AMD, including: