We all expect to need eyeglasses as we get older. Compromised vision is often a normal part of the aging process as our eyes change with time. Even some conditions like cataracts, which are not “normal” are still so common and easily fixed that we don’t lose too much sleep worrying about them. Other forms of vision loss later in life, however, are much more serious.

Age-related macular degeneration is a relatively common condition that affects up to 30 percent of us at some point in our lives. While a slow-moving disease, the results can be devastating if not properly addressed. But what exactly is AMD and what can be done about it?

What is age-related macular degeneration?

Age-related macular degeneration (sometimes just called macular degeneration) is a degenerative condition of the macula. The macula is the part of the eye at the center of the retina. The typical symptom of AMD is a slowly progressing loss of central vision. In some cases, macular degeneration can lead to significant or even complete vision loss in one or both eyes.

There appears to be no relation between needing prescription glasses and developing macular degeneration later in life. AMD is a concern for all of us, whether we wear glasses or not.

Risk factors

The exact causes of age-related macular degeneration are not always known. However, doctors have pinned down some factors that can increase both a person’s risk of developing the disease and their risk of speeding up its progression should they already have it.

  • Smoking
  • Fatty diet
  • Race

People of primarily caucasian descent are at a higher risk of macular degeneration.

  • Family history

There appears to be a genetic component to AMD. Next to age, family history is the biggest risk factor.

  • High blood pressure
  • Overexposure to UV rays

Just like your skin, your eyes can be damaged by too much time in the sun.

The greatest risk factor of all is age. AMD is highly uncommon before age 40 or so, and most cases present when a person is well into their 60’s or 70’s. This is due to the disease’s incredibly slow progression. It can take years for symptoms to present. 

The two kinds of AMD

AMD comes in two forms: Wet and Dry. Each presents unique challenges and has different potential treatments.

Dry AMD is the most common, accounting for nearly all diagnosed cases. With Dry AMD, special treatments involving vitamins, minerals and antioxidants have shown promise in slowing the progression of the disease, although there is no cure.

Wet AMD is the rarer form of macular degeneration, occurring in roughly 15 percent of patients. Wet AMD is usually much faster and less responsive to treatments, although some laser therapies have shown potential. Wet AMD gets its name from the way it causes new blood vessels to grow beneath the retina, and these blood vessels often leak.

It is possible to develop both kinds of AMD, they are not mutually exclusive.

Lowering your risk

There is not much to be done about most AMD risk factors. Racial background, age, and family history are all completely outside of our control. Some of the other factors, however, can be mitigated with simple lifestyle choices.

A healthy diet and an active lifestyle can help keep your whole body healthy as well as lower your chances of AMD. Quitting smoking will also have a marked improvement on your odds. If you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, it is advisable to seek treatment as soon as possible.

Remembering your sunglasses is also helpful. Cumulative damage from UV exposure can cause health problems in your eyes and the skin around them. Research suggests that excess UV exposure may play a role in the speed at which age-related macular degeneration progresses. Protecting your eyes is as simple as wearing 100 percent UV-resistant sunglasses.

And remember that just because you’re not on summer vacation doesn’t mean UV light isn’t hitting your eyes. Even cold or overcast days can still expose you to UV rays, so pick a quality pair of shades that you’ll want to wear year-round. Our extensive selection of sunglasses all come with complete UV protection and can be fitted with prescription lenses, so you don’t have to sacrifice clear vision for eye protection. (If you’re unclear on how to read your prescription, give our prescription guide a look.)

When to see your doctor

All adults should be having yearly or biannual eye exams. You should schedule an extra appointment as well if you ever notice any unexpected vision changes. AMD has no cure, but the progression of the disease can often be slowed, and the sooner you act, the more of your vision your doctor may be able to save.