What is eye degeneration?
Degeneration of the macula, the central portion of the retina, is a serious eye disorder that most commonly affects people over the age of 50. Thousands of people in the United States become legally blind each year due to macular degeneration.
The retina, which forms the lining at the back of the eye, conveys images to the brain. The middle of the macula is responsible for central vision and for the perception of fine details, because it contains a dense number of light receptors. If the macula is damaged or diseased, central vision begins to blur. Small print becomes difficult to read, and distant objects appear fuzzy or blurred.
What causes eye degeneration?
The exact cause of macular degeneration is unknown, but it is believed to result from a reduced flow of blood
Loss of central vision may develop gradually or become apparent suddenly. Be alert for:
- Difficulty reading small print.
- Blurring of distant objects.
- Visual distortion in one eye.
to the eyes, which leads to the development of small cysts and the eventual separation of the macular area from the back of the eyeball. In addition, abnormally shaped blood vessels may form in the macula. These vessels can burst and bleed, further damaging the delicate light receptors. No predisposing medical condition has been identified. In a few cases, however, the disorder is believed to be hereditary.
How is eye degeneration diagnosed and treated?
This condition can be detected by an eye doctor during a regular checkup and confirmed by special tests. Until
recently, little could be done to treat the problem, other than to use a magnifying glass for reading during the early stages of the disease. A relatively new approach entails using a krypton laser beam to seal off the abnormal blood vessels formed during the process of macular degeneration. Laser surgery not only closes the blood vessels, but in some cases, it may also reattach the retina to the back of the eyeball, thereby reducing or slowing the loss of vision. To be successful, however, laser treatment must start early in the course of the disease, immediately after the degeneration process has begun and before the symptoms become obvious to most people.
What can I do myself?
Since early treatment is so important, persons over the age of 50 are advised to perform a simple self-test every few days. This test involves focusing one eye at a time on a straight line. If the line looks wavy or broken, it may be a symptom of macular degeneration.
When should I see my doctor?
If the self-test suggests macular degeneration, see an eye specialist as soon as possible. Even if there are no symptoms of any vision problem, a routine eye examination is desirable at least once every 2 years, and preferably once a year.
What will the doctor do?
The doctor uses an ophthalmoscope,
a hand-held device with a bright light attached to it, to look through the eyes and into the retina, checking its blood vessels for damage and determining whether it has become detached from the back of the eyeball. Changes in eye pigment and hemorrhages (areas where blood vessels have burst) are also noted.
Another test called fluorescein retinal angiography may be performed if macular degeneration is suspected. In this procedure, the pupils are dilated with eyedrops and fluorescein dye is injected through a vein in the arm. This dye makes the blood circulation in the retina visible on an x-ray picture. While the patient sits very still with his or her head resting in a special frame to prevent movement, a series of x-rays is taken. Sometimes a second set is taken after waiting for 20 to 30 minutes.
The course of eye degeneration
Macular degeneration develops gradually and without symptoms. If the condition is not treated early, the central field of vision may be lost permanently.
Peripheral vision is not affected, so most people who are legally blind due to macular degeneration are still able to take care of themselves and get around. However, they are unable to drive and they may lose the ability to read. Tests are underway on special devices that will enable people who have only peripheral vision to read normally.
Is eye degeneration dangerous?
It is not life threatening or painful, but it can seriously affect the quality of life.
What can I do to avoid eye degeneration?
Since the cause of macular degeneration is unknown, there is little a person can do to prevent it. Not smoking may be of some value, since cigarettes are associated with impaired circulation throughout the body, including the eyes.