Macular degeneration | The Fred Hollows Foundation NZ

Macular degeneration

Macular degeneration is the most common cause of untreatable blindness in developed countries. It is becoming more common throughout the world as the average age of the population increases.

What is macular degeneration?

Dry macular degeneration, advanced case with geographic atrophy and RPE scarring. The macular is a small area of the retina, which is located at the back of the eye. It is responsible for detailed central and colour vision. Central vision is what you can see directly in front of you, rather than the periphery.

Macular degeneration occurs when the macula deteriorates, affecting a person’s ability to see fine detail. The macula is the area of the retina most densely packed with the photoreceptors and neurons required to transmit signals to the brain.

Macular degeneration generally affects people as they age and is commonly referred to as Age-related Macular Degeneration. There is a genetic component to macular degeneration and the onset can vary from person to person depending on the condition of their macula.

Macular degeneration comes in two forms:

  • Dry form macular degeneration is the more common of the two forms. It is an early stage of the disease related to ageing and thinning of macula tissues or depositing of cellular debris, called drusen, in the macula, creating shadowy or blurry spots in the central vision field. In its later stages, the blind spots can grow and darken.
  • Wet form macular degeneration is a more advanced and damaging form of the disease. As the retina is starved of oxygen, new blood vessels grow behind the retina, underneath the macula in order to resupply oxygen to the retina. These new blood vessels are weak and fragile, leading to them leak blood and fluid which causes the macula to swell. Vision loss can happen rapidly with this stage if the blood vessels haemorrhage. The damage caused by the blood vessels can also scar the retina. Symptoms can include distortion in vision; straight lines may appear wavy. Blind spots can also appear in the central vision.

Who does macular degeneration affect?

Wet macular degeneration with sub retinal hemorrhage illustration. Macular degeneration becomes more common as people age. Other factors which lead to an increased incidence of macular degeneration include smoking, high blood pressure, and a family history of the condition.

Early onset macular degeneration is very rare but does exist as an inherited condition.

What is the magnitude of the problem?

Macular degeneration is now the third leading cause of blindness in the world, due largely to the fact that there are a growing number of people over the age of 70.

Can macular degeneration be treated?

Early diagnosis of macular degeneration is crucial as loss of vision cannot be restored once the damage has occurred. In some cases, laser therapy can be used to seal leaking blood vessels in the macular area, which can stop further deterioration of central vision.

There are drugs available which may help to lessen the effects of macular degeneration by stopping broken blood vessels from leaking fluid and blood but unfortunately these are not widely available in developing countries. These drugs are injected into the eye in minute doses.

People affected by macular degeneration often benefit from low vision services such as magnifying spectacles and devices which help them to live independently.

Can macular degeneration be prevented?

Currently, macular degeneration cannot be prevented, but the risk of severe symptoms can be reduced by taking the following measures:

  • Periodic eye examinations by an eye health professional to detect early signs
  • Early attendance to an eye health professional if any symptoms develop
  • Not smoking
  • Eat a healthy diet

Note: This information is general in nature and is not a substitute for specialist medical advice. Have your eyes checked regularly every two years, even if you have not noticed any symptoms or changes.

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