Age Related Macular Degeneration

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What Is Macular Degeneration?

1Age Related Macular Degeneration or ARMD is a common eye condition and a leading cause of severe vision loss among people age 50 and older. It causes damage to the macula, a small spot near the center of the retina and the part of the eye needed for sharp, central vision, which lets us see objects that are straight ahead.

In most people, ARMD advances so slowly that vision loss does not occur for a long time. In others, the disease progresses faster and may lead to a loss of central vision in one or both eyes. As ARMD progresses, a blurred or distorted area near the center of vision is a common symptom. Over time, the blurred area may grow larger or you may develop blank spots in your central vision. Objects also may not appear to be as bright as they used to be.

ARMD by itself does not lead to complete blindness, with no ability to see. ARMD generally only affects the central vision and spares side (peripheral) vision. For example, you may be able to see the outline of a clock but not be able to tell the time. The loss of central vision in ARMD can interfere with simple everyday activities, such as the ability to see faces, drive, read, write, or do close work, such as cooking or fixing things around the house.

 

The Macula

2The macula of the retina is made up of millions of light-sensing cells that provide sharp, central vision. It is the most sensitive part of the retina, which is located at the back of the eye. The retina turns light into electrical signals and then sends these electrical signals through the optic nerve to the brain, where they are translated into the images we see. When the macula is damaged, the center of your field of view may appear blurry, distorted, or dark.

Are You At Risk?

Age is a major risk factor for ARMD. The disease is most likely to occur after age 60, but it can occur earlier. Other risk factors for ARMD include:

  • Smoking. Smoking greatly decreases the bodies anti-oxidant capabilities. Research shows that smoking doubles the risk of ARMD.
  • Race. ARMD is more common among Caucasians than among African-Americans or Hispanics/Latinos.
  • Family history. People with a family history of ARMD are at higher risk.

Can I decrease my risk of developing ARMD?
You might be able to reduce your risk of ARMD or slow its progression by making these healthy choices:

  • Don’t Smoke or use tobacco products
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • Eat a healthy diet rich in green, leafy vegetables and fish

How is ARMD Detected?

The early and intermediate stages of ARMD usually start without symptoms. Only a comprehensive dilated eye exam can detect ARMD. The eye exam may include the following:

  • Visual acuity test. This eye chart measures how well you see at distances.
  • Dilated eye exam. Your eye care professional places drops in your eyes to widen or dilate the pupils. This provides a better view of the back of your eye. Using a special magnifying lens, he or she then looks at your retina and optic nerve for signs of ARMD and other eye problems.
  • Amsler grid. Your eye care professional also may ask you to look at an Amsler grid. Changes in your central vision may cause the lines in the grid to disappear or appear wavy, a sign of ARMD.
  • Fluorescein angiogram. In this test, which is performed by an ophthalmologist, a fluorescent dye is injected into your arm. Pictures are taken as the dye passes through the blood vessels in your eye. This makes it possible to see leaking blood vessels, which occur in a severe, rapidly progressive type of ARMD (see below). In rare cases, complications to the injection can arise, from nausea to more severe allergic reactions.
  • Optical coherence tomography (OCT). You have probably heard of ultrasound, which uses sound waves to capture images of living tissues. OCT is similar except that it uses light waves, and can achieve very high-resolution images of any tissues that can be penetrated by light—such as the eyes. After your eyes are dilated, you’ll be asked to place your head on a chin rest and hold still for several seconds while the images are obtained. The light beam is painless.

During the exam, your eye care professional will look for drusen, which are yellow deposits beneath the retina. Most people develop some very small drusen as a normal part of aging. The presence of medium-to-large drusen may indicate that you have ARMD.

Another sign of ARMD is the appearance of pigmentary changes under the retina. In addition to the pigmented cells in the iris (the colored part of the eye), there are pigmented cells beneath the retina. As these cells break down and release their pigment, your eye care professional may see dark clumps of released pigment and later, areas that are less pigmented. These changes will not affect your eye color.

What Are The Stages of ARMD?

There are three stages of ARMD defined in part by the size and number of drusen under the retina. It is possible to have ARMD in one eye only, or to have one eye with a later stage of ARMD than the other.

 

Early AMD

Early ARMD is diagnosed by the presence of medium-sized drusen, which are about the width of an average human hair. People with early ARMD typically do not have vision loss.

Intermediate AMD

People with intermediate ARMD typically have large drusen, pigment changes in the retina, or both. Again, these changes can only be detected during an eye exam. Intermediate ARMD may cause some vision loss, but most people will not experience any symptoms.

Late AMD

In addition to drusen, people with late ARMD have vision loss from damage to the macula.

Two Different Types Of Late ARMD:

Geographic Atrophy

Early ARMD is diagnosed by the presence of medium-sized drusen, which are about the width of an average human hair. People with early ARMD typically do not have vision loss.

Neovascular ARMD

In neovascular ARMD (also called wet ARMD), abnormal blood vessels grow underneath the retina. (“Neovascular” literally means “new vessels.”) These vessels can leak fluid and blood, which may lead to swelling and damage of the macula. The damage may be rapid and severe, unlike the more gradual course of geographic atrophy. It is possible to have both geographic atrophy and neovascular ARMD in the same eye, and either condition can appear first.
ARMD has few symptoms in the early stages, so it is important to have your eyes examined regularly. If you are at risk for AMD because of age, family history, lifestyle, or some combination of these factors, you should not wait to experience changes in vision before getting checked for ARMD.

Not everyone with early ARMD will develop late ARMD. For people who have early ARMD in one eye and no signs of ARMD in the other eye, about five percent will develop advanced ARMD after 10 years. For people who have early ARMD in both eyes, about 14 percent will develop late ARMD in at least one eye after 10 years. With prompt detection of RAMD, there are steps you can take to further reduce your risk of vision loss from late ARMD.

If you have late ARMD in one eye only, you may not notice any changes in your overall vision. With the other eye seeing clearly, you may still be able to drive, read, and see fine details. However, having late ARMD in one eye means you are at increased risk for late ARMD in your other eye. If you notice distortion or blurred vision, even if it doesn’t have much effect on your daily life, consult an eye care professional.

Can ARMD Be Treated?

Early ARMD

Currently, no treatment exists for early ARMD, which in many people shows no symptoms or loss of vision. Your eye care professional may recommend that you get a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once a year. The exam will help determine if your condition is advancing.

As for prevention, ARMD occurs less often in people who exercise, avoid smoking, and eat nutritious foods including green leafy vegetables and fish. If you already have ARMD, adopting some of these habits may help you keep your vision longer.

Intermediate and late ARMD

Researchers at the National Eye Institute tested whether taking nutritional supplements could protect against ARMD in the Age-Related Eye Disease Studies (AREDS and AREDS2). They found that daily intake of certain high-dose vitamins and minerals can slow progression of the disease in people who have intermediate ARMD, and those who have late ARMD in one eye.

The first AREDS trial showed that a combination of vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, zinc, and copper can reduce the risk of late ARMD by 25 percent. The AREDS2 trial tested whether this formulation could be improved by adding lutein, zeaxanthin or omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are nutrients enriched in fish oils. Lutein, zeaxanthin and beta-carotene all belong to the same family of vitamins, and are abundant in green leafy vegetables.

The AREDS2 trial found that adding lutein and zeaxanthin or omega-three fatty acids to the original AREDS formulation (with beta-carotene) had no overall effect on the risk of late ARMD. However, the trial also found that replacing beta-carotene with a 5-to-1 mixture of lutein and zeaxanthin may help further reduce the risk of late AMD. Moreover, while beta-carotene has been linked to an increased risk of lung cancer in current and former smokers, lutein and zeaxanthin appear to be safe regardless of smoking status.

Here are the clinically effective doses tested in AREDS and AREDS2:

  • 500 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C
  • 400 international units of vitamin E
  • 80 mg zinc as zinc oxide (25 mg in AREDS2)
  • 2 mg copper as cupric oxide
  • 15 mg beta-carotene, OR 10 mg lutein and 2 mg zeaxanthin

A number of manufacturers offer nutritional supplements that were formulated based on these studies. The label may refer to “AREDS” or “AREDS2.”

If you have intermediate or late ARMD, you might benefit from taking such supplements. But first, be sure to review and compare the labels. Many of the supplements have different ingredients, or different doses, from those tested in the AREDS trials. Also, consult your doctor or eye care professional about which supplement, if any, is right for you. For example, if you smoke regularly, or used to, your doctor may recommend that you avoid supplements containing beta-carotene.

Even if you take a daily multivitamin, you should consider taking an AREDS supplement if you are at risk for late ARMD. The formulations tested in the AREDS trials contain much higher doses of vitamins and minerals than what is found in multivitamins. Tell your doctor or eye care professional about any multivitamins you are taking when you are discussing possible AREDS formulations.

Finally, remember that the AREDS formulation is not a cure. It does not help people with early ARMD, and will not restore vision already lost from ARMD. But it may delay the onset of late ARMD. It also may help slow vision loss in people who already have late ARMD.

Advanced neovascular ARMD

Neovascular ARMD typically results in severe vision loss. However, eye care professionals can try different therapies to stop further vision loss. You should remember that the therapies described below are not a cure. The condition may progress even with treatment.

  • Injections. One option to slow the progression of neovascular ARMD is to inject drugs into the eye. With neovascular ARMD, abnormally high levels of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) are secreted in your eyes. VEGF is a protein that promotes the growth of new abnormal blood vessels. Anti-VEGF injection therapy blocks this growth. If you get this treatment, you may need multiple monthly injections. Before each injection, your eye will be numbed and cleaned with antiseptics. To further reduce the risk of infection, you may be prescribed antibiotic drops. A few different anti-VEGF drugs are available. They vary in cost and in how often they need to be injected, so you may wish to discuss these issues with your eye care professional.
  • Photodynamic therapy. This technique involves laser treatment of select areas of the retina. First, a drug called verteporfin will be injected into a vein in your arm. The drug travels through the blood vessels in your body, and is absorbed by new, growing blood vessels. Your eye care professional then shines a laser beam into your eye to activate the drug in the new abnormal blood vessels, while sparing normal ones. Once activated, the drug closes off the new blood vessels, slows their growth, and slows the rate of vision loss. This procedure is less common than anti-VEGF injections, and is often used in combination with them for specific types of neovascular ARMD.
  • Laser surgery. Eye care professionals treat certain cases of neovascular AMD with laser surgery, though this is less common than other treatments. It involves aiming an intense “hot” laser at the abnormal blood vessels in your eyes to destroy them. This laser is not the same one used in photodynamic therapy which may be referred to as a “cold” laser. This treatment is more likely to be used when blood vessel growth is limited to a compact area in your eye, away from the center of the macula, that can be easily targeted with the laser. Even so, laser treatment also may destroy some surrounding healthy tissue. This often results in a small blind spot where the laser has scarred the retina. In some cases, vision immediately after the surgery may be worse than it was before. But the surgery may also help prevent more severe vision loss from occurring years later.
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