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Macular degeneration is a common cause of age-related vision loss. The macula is the central portion of the retina, the back part of the eye which sends information from the eyes to the brain. Just like the infield of a baseball field is where most of the action happens, most of the important vision tasks like reading, recognizing faces and viewing road signs are done by the cells in the macula. Degeneration means a slow progression over time. By definition, then, age-related macular degeneration is an aging-related change of the cells that make up the macula — or the infield of the retina.
Dry macular degeneration always comes first, and an optometrist or ophthalmologist can detect this with a dilated eye examination. This is the most common form macular degeneration and can be associated with blurriness of the central vision or occasional waviness of straight lines, such as light poles or the edge of a doorway. If we think about the retina like an infield of a baseball field, dry macular degeneration is like getting a few pebbles or a few dry patches in the infield grass.
Wet macular degeneration, a more advanced form of the disease, can cause sudden blurriness of the central vision. Wet refers to the growth of abnormal blood vessels, which can leak water and blood under and into the retina. This would be like the infield grass getting soggy from leaky pipes underground.
The exact cause of macular degeneration is unknown, but the condition develops with aging of the eyes and can run in families, although not always. If you are over age 50 and have a parent or sibling with macular degeneration, these are some things you should do:
- Get routine dilated eye exams. Inform your eye doctor you have a family member with macular degeneration and would like to be checked for any signs.
- Aim for good general health. Maintaining a healthy weight, normal blood pressure and cholesterol are good for the eyes as well as the body.
- Stop smoking. Smokers get macular degeneration at an earlier age and are more severely affected than non-smokers.
- Eat lots of vegetables. Eating leafy greens, such as kale, spinach and collard greens, provide key vitamins directly to the retina
- Include fish in your diet. Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fatty cold water fish, strengthen the cells of the macula as well as those in the blood vessels throughout the body.
A doctor who specializes in eye care — an optometrist or an ophthalmologist — can perform comprehensive eye examinations to screen for macular degeneration. See an eye doctor for routine exams as well as sudden central vision loss.
Justin Yamanuha, M.D., is an ophthalmologist at Mayo Clinic Health System - Franciscan Health Care in La Crosse.