Keeping your eyes healthy should be a priority for all Australians, as catching eye diseases early can often limit damage. Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of legal blindness in Australia, accounting for around 50% of all blindness. While AMD is quite common, it’s possible to reduce the risk of losing your sight by adopting a healthy lifestyle and having regular eye checks.
What is Age-Related Macular Degeneration?
Macular degeneration is a blanket term for a number of degenerative retinal diseases that lead to the loss of central vision while leaving peripheral vision intact. AMD doesn’t necessarily cause sufferers to lose all sight, the loss of central vision makes a number of tasks more difficult, such as reading, recognising faces and seeing fine detail.
Behind the retina there is a layer of cells called the Retinal Pigment Epithelials (RPE), responsible for transferring nutrients to the retina and removing waste from the retina and transferring it to a network of blood vessels called the choroid. This transfer of nutrients and waste keeps the retina healthy and functional.
Age-related Macular degeneration occurs when the RPE doesn’t adequately clear waste from the retina, leading to a buildup of yellowish spots known as drusen around the center of the retina. These spots first appear in the early stages of degeneration and don’t necessarily cause vision problems, so regular eye tests and macula checks can help catch the disease before it becomes a vision problem.
Later stages of age-related macular degeneration lead to vision loss due to the death of the RPE cells beneath the retina. Late stage AMD is categorised in two ways:
- Dry AMD
Dry degeneration is the result of RPE cells dying and the retinal cells above them dying in tandem. This leads to a gradual loss of vision as more and more retinal cells die.
- Wet AMD
Wet macular degeneration is a fast and aggressive form of the disease and causes fast and severe changes in vision. It is caused by RPE cells dying and the choroid blood vessels growing unchecked into the retina. These abnormal blood vessels are very fragile and leak blood and fluid into the retina leading to damage and scarring. If the resulting loss of vision remains untreated it remains permanent.
What are the Symptoms of AMD?
Loss of central vision and distortion are symptoms of mid and late stage AMD, but there are a number of lesser or early symptoms that should be checked out by a medical professional. These symptoms include:
- Blind spots
- Blurred vision
- Colours seem muted
- Difficulty focussing on close objects
- Difficulty reading fine print
- Requiring very bright light to read or work
- Trouble judging depth and distance
What are the Risk Factors?
The exact cause of AMD is unknown. Age is one of the major factors affecting rates of age-related macular degeneration with around one in seven Australians over 50 showing signs of macular disease, but it should not be simply passed off as a consequence of getting older, as lifestyle, genetics and environment can also increase the risks.
- Family History
Genetics definitely seems to play a major role in the chance of developing AMD, with people with a direct family history (a sibling or parent) of the disease having a 50% chance of developing it themselves.If you are diagnosed with AMD inform all of your family and ensure they have regular checks.
Smokers are boh much more likely to develop age-related macular degeneration, the premature aging associated with smoking also means that smokers develop the disease up to a 10 years earlier than normal and are more likely to develop the more severe form.
Obesity (BMI>30), diabetes, high blood pressure and poor diet can increase the chance of developing AMD.
- UV/Blue Light
There is some evidence that UV light from the sun and other sources, as well as blue light emitted by some electronics can cause damage to the eyes and increase the chance of developing age-related macular degeneration.
How Do I Minimise Risk?
There is no sure way to ensure that you don’t develop AMD, but there are still a number of things you can do to minimise your risk or slow the advance of symptoms.
- Quit Smoking
You should do this anyway, but as smoking massively increases your chances of developing AMD, quitting smoking is one of the most effective measures you can take to minimise risk.
- Weight Control
As obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure seem to increase the chances of age-related macular degeneration, losing weight and eating a healthy diet can be a good way of controlling risk. Regular exercise is good not only for weight loss but is a great way to maintain overall health no matter your age.
- Sun Protection
While the evidence that blue light from electronics can damage the eye is still inconclusive, it’s widely known that the sun can and does cause damage. Wearing sunglasses, transition lenses or a sunhat when outside is an easy way to minimise sun damage to your eyes, potentially lessening your chances of macular degeneration or slowing the progression of the disease.
- Nutrition and Supplements
Eating a healthy diet full of nutrients good for eye health is an effective (and potentially quite delicious) way of maintaining retinal health and minimising the risk of developing AMD. If some of the recommended eye health ingredients aren’t available to you due to price, scarcity or allergy, a number of supplements have shown to be effective at maintaining eye health. Talk to your Optometrist to see if they will be of benefit to you.
There may be a number of factors that can minimise your risk of developing AMD or can aid in slowing the progress of the disease, the best thing you can do for your eye health is to have regular eye tests and macular checks. If AMD is caught early it can be effectively treated.
If you need to book an appointment to see an optometrist near you because of changes to your vision, or if you just want a checkup, the easiest and most effective way is to search and book through MyHealth1st. For more information about macular health and resources, the Macular Disease Foundation has you covered.