Does macular degeneration cause blindness?

Macular degeneration (MD) is the leading cause of sight loss in the UK. However, most people with MD still have their peripheral (side) vision and so can see well enough to get around. However, they may not be able to see well enough to read without strong magnification.

Does it happen more as you get older?

The most common forms of MD happen more as you get older and are known as age-related MD (AMD). Around one in 10 people aged 65 or older show some signs of AMD. Some younger people may have MD caused by a genetic condition but this is less common than AMD.

What are the symptoms of AMD?

Some people simply notice that things appear blurry or they have difficulty reading, even with their normal reading glasses.  Other people may notice that they have a smudge in their central vision which does not go away, or they may notice that straight lines are distorted or wavy.

Some people with AMD may notice that they find that they become sensitive to bright light, or that they find it difficult to adapt when going from a dark to a light environment.  Some people notice that colours can fade.

These symptoms are more noticeable if you look for them with each eye separately, as if you have both eyes open then the better eye may compensate for the other one.  We recommend you check your vision in each eye separately on a regular basis by looking at some detail, such as a book or magazine and covering each eye in turn.  This will help you notice any changes in your vision early.

Can I do anything to protect myself from getting AMD?

Smoking is known as a major risk factor for developing AMD so if you smoke try to stop. It is also believed that having a diet that is rich in coloured fruit and vegetables (for example, kale, spinach, celery and broccoli) may reduce your risk of developing AMD.  A link has been found between obesity and AMD so you should try to maintain a healthy weight.

Other factors that increase your risk of developing AMD include having a family history of the condition. It is slightly more common in women than men. It is possible that exposure to ultraviolet light may be linked to AMD so we recommend that you wear UV-absorbing glasses when you are going to be outside for long periods.

The exact cause of AMD is not yet known, so you may develop it even if you don’t have any of these risk factors.

There are lots of dietary supplements on the market which claim to be beneficial for eye health.  There is no good evidence  that the general population should be taking these supplements. There is moderate evidence that people with existing AMD may delay progression of the disease if they take specific supplements. Discuss whether or not they may be helpful for you with your optometrist.

You should note that if you smoke or have been exposed to asbestos you should not take beta carotene.

Is there any treatment for AMD?

There is currently no treatment for dry AMD. Lighting is very important and you may find it easier to read if you have a good light at home, or sit near a window to read. If the dry AMD is interfering with your ability to see fine details, your optometrist can advise you on special magnifiers which can help you. Organisations like the RNIB or local social services can provide you with equipment that can help you manage your day-to-day tasks. Your optometrist or GP will give you advice on contacting these services.

Wet AMD can often be treated if it is caught early enough and this is normally done by injecting a drug into the gel inside your eye. This shrinks the new blood vessels that are pushing the macula away from the back of your eye. You may need to have this repeated every few weeks for a few months. This will be provided on the NHS. It is important to spot any changes early by checking the vision in each eye separately and contacting your optometrist immediately if your vision suddenly becomes distorted or you have a blank spot in your vision.

If you have wet AMD, your optometrist will refer you to a specialist eye doctor, known as an ophthalmologist. The ophthalmologist will decide if you need treatment by taking some scans of the back of your eye to show the thickness of the retina. They may also inject in your arm with some special dye to see how this travels through the back of your eye, while taking a series of flash photographs of the inside of your eye.

After treatment

If you find you are struggling to see things because of poor vision, as your doctor or optometrist for details of your local low-vision service. RNIB can also give you advice in the help that is available. Contact the RNIB Helpline on 0303 123 9999