Macular Degeneration

Age related macular degeneration (ARMD) is the most common cause of irreversible vision loss for people over the age of 60. Symptoms include blurry or fuzzy vision, straight lines (like telephone poles and sides of buildings) appearing wavy and a dark or empty area may appearing in the center of the vision.

The effect of this disease can range from mild vision loss to central blindness. That is, blindness “straight ahead” but with normal peripheral vision from the non-macular part of the retina which is undamaged by the disease.

Two types of Macular Degeneration

  • The majority of ARMD is of the “atrophic” or “dry” variety. It is characterized by a thinning of the macular tissue and the development of small deposits on the retina called drusen. Dry ARMD develops slowly and usually causes mild visual loss. The main symptom is often a dimming of vision when reading.
  • The second form of ARMD is called “exudative” or “wet” because of the abnormal growth of new blood vessels under the macula where they leak and eventually create a large blind spot in the central vision. This form of the disease is of much greater threat to vision than the more common dry type.

Unfortunately, the cause of this eye condition is not fully understood but it is associated with the aging process. As we age, we become more susceptible to numerous degenerative processes like arthritis, heart conditions, cancer, cataracts and macular degeneration. These conditions may be caused by the body’s overproduction of free radicals. During the metabolic process, oxygen atoms with an extra electron are released. These extra electrons are quite destructive and cause cellular damage, alter DNA, and are thought to be at least partially responsible for many of the degenerative diseases mentioned above. The production of these free radicals is normal during metabolism but the body produces its own “anti-oxidants” to neutralize them.

Some of the vitamins in the food we eat also have anti-oxidant properties. These are vitamins A, C, E and beta-carotene. Unfortunately, smoking, poor nutrition and other lifestyle factors result in the body producing too many free radicals. For this reason, lifestyle factors may contribute to the risk of ARMD.

There is some evidence to suggest that ARMD has a genetic basis, as the condition tends to run in families. The exact nature of this familial tendency, however, has not been clarified.

Although researchers are spending a great deal of time investigating the cause and treatment of ARMD, there is no real cure available. The goal of current treatment efforts is to attempt to stabilize the condition. For the more severe wet form of the disease, doctors have tried laser photocoagulation. This treatment, however, is not without dangers and is only beneficial in the very early stages of the condition, which is why early detection is so important. This technique involves directing a beam of laser light at the abnormal blood vessels in order to destroy them and prevent their leaking. Provided that the blood vessels have not grown under the macula, this treatment can be helpful in arresting the progress of the disease. If the blood vessels are already under the macula, the laser may cause scarring and permanent vision loss.

No treatment exists for the dry form but many doctors recommend that a combination of specific vitamins and minerals helps slow the progression of the disease.

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