DOVER –– As people get older, the rate of illness and disease increases and age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, is one of the many conditions to beware of.
Macular degeneration –– a disease that damages central vision –– is the leading cause of blindness among seniors in Americans; affecting more than 2 million in the U.S. alone.
“There is still a worrying lack of awareness when it comes to AMD, despite it being the number one cause of blindness in seniors,” said Rahul N. Khurana, M.D., a clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
In early stages of AMD, no symptoms may be noticeable and the only detection of any problems may only be found during a routine eye exam.
But if not detected early during an eye exam, symptoms are vision distortion that makes straight lines look wavy, slowed recovery between bright and dim lighting, blurry vision and trouble distinguishing colors.
Since the earliest symptoms individuals notice happen after vision has already been damaged, the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that those 65 and over have an annual eye exam from an ophthalmologist –– a physician that specializes in the medical and surgical treatment of eye diseases and conditions –– even if there are no signs of problems.
According to the American Macular Degeneration Foundation, not all risk factors for AMD are controllable, but a few are. Lifestyle risks that can be controlled are being overweight, having unchecked cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure, long-term exposure to the sun without eye protection and smoking.
Smoking doubles the risk of developing AMD and the increases the speed at which it progresses.
Other risk factors come down to attributes that cannot be helped like age and gender. The chances of developing the disease are higher for women and for all as age increases.
Genetics also play a role in AMD so know your family’s eye health history. Having a close relative with AMD increases your risk by 50 percent.
“Older Americans who are unaware of the disease may be putting themselves at risk by not taking early steps to care for their vision,” Dr. Khurana said. “The good news is that they protect their sight from AMD-related blindness by showing their eyes some TLC with regular eye exams and lifestyle changes.”
To reduce your risk of developing AMD, the American Academy of Ophthalmology suggests adopting some healthy habits including a healthy diet rich in omega-3s and low in cholesterol and saturated fat, and a consistent exercise regimen.
A study by the Academy found that exercising three times a week reduced the risk of developing AMD by 70 percent over 15 years.
Preventative measures are important because some forms of AMD are untreatable which can lead to the inability to read, or even distinguish faces and in worst cast scenarios can lead to total blindness.
Other forms are somewhat treatable with the use of injections or laser surgery to stop the growth of blood vessels in the eyes.
Without preventative measures, the number of Americans living with AMD will continue to rise with the Academy currently projecting 5.4 million Americans living with the disease by 2050.
Even though the numbers are ever increasing, awareness of AMD is very low compared to that of other eye diseases such as cataracts and glaucoma.
If you are concerned about your risk of AMD but finances prevent you from receiving regular eye exams, you may qualify for EyeCare America, a public service program of the American Academy of Ophthalmology that offers eye exams at no cost for eligible individuals age 65 and older. Visit www.eyecareamerica.org to check your eligibility.