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February is AMD Awareness Month

Macular degeneration

If you haven't already heard of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), chances are that you will, since it might one day affect you or someone in your family.

Right now, AMD is the number one cause of severe vision loss and legal blindness in Americans over 50. As baby boomers— those born in the mid-1940s to early 1960s—continue to age, this currently incurable eye disease is on its way to affecting up to 3 million by 2020—and that's just people with late AMD, the most critical stage. In 2010, 9.1 million were diagnosed with early AMD. That number is projected to grow to 17.8 million by 2050.

So, What Exactly Is AMD?

It's a deterioration of the macula, the small central area of the eye's retina. A progressive disease, it can diminish your ability to read, recognize faces, drive, watch television, sign your name—just about any other task that requires central vision. It affects your vision whether you're looking at something near or far. For instance, imagine a clock with hands. With AMD, you might see the clock's numbers, but not the hands.

In some people, AMD advances so slowly that they don't lose vision for a long time. In others, it progresses faster and may lead to vision loss in one or both eyes. AMD itself doesn't lead to complete blindness. However, the loss of central vision can be devastating in terms of the initial loss of independence. (Fortunately, patient support groups and low-vision aids are widely available.)

There Are Two Types of AMD: Wet and Dry.

Dry is the most common form, affecting about 80 percent of the people who have AMD. It's caused when parts of the macula get thinner with age and tiny clumps of protein called drusen grow.

Wet AMD is less common and much more serious. It causes new, abnormal blood vessels to grow under the retina.

While there is no cure (yet) for AMD, injections into the eye can block the growth of new abnormal blood vessels in people with advanced neurovascular (wet) AMD and may slow the progression of the disease. Other options depend on the type of AMD. Some benefit from photodynamic therapy—laser treatment to select areas of the retina to close off or slow new blood vessels. Less common is laser surgery. Your ophthalmologist can advise you on which treatments may work for you.

Once you have moderate to advanced AMD, a daily vitamin supplement based on the National Eye Institute's AREDS2 study and widely available in most supermarkets may help slow things down.

These short videos explain more about AMD.

Meanwhile, here's the not-so-surprising news and advice when it comes to protecting your vision:

  • Avoid smoking (it doubles your risk of getting AMD as well as other eye diseases)
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • Eat a healthy diet with plenty of green, leafy vegetables and fish.

And finally, get regular, comprehensive, dilated eye exams. It's the only way to detect AMD.