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What is Dry Macular Degeneration?

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What is Dry Macular Degeneration?

First person perspective looking down the road across a bridge with a large blurry black spot in the middle of field of view

Dry macular degeneration (DMD) is a very common degenerative eye disease that affects the macula — a small and central part of the retina. This eye part is responsible for focusing your central vision, allowing your eyes to see fine details. It is particularly important for tasks such as reading, driving, and even recognizing faces or colors.

Macular degeneration is a progressive disease that often affects people over the age of 50 – which is why it’s also commonly referred to as Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD). This disease is the leading cause of severe or permanent vision loss in people over 60. But with an early diagnosis by an optometrist and a healthy lifestyle, the illness may progress at a very slow rate and your quality of life will be minimally affected.

Dry vs Wet Macular Degeneration

There are 2 types of macular degeneration, dry and wet, with the latter usually being a consequence of dry macular degeneration being left untreated.

Dry Macular Degeneration

Dry MD is more common, and more easily treatable. It occurs when small yellow deposits made of lipids and proteins, called drusen, form in the macula. 

Drusen can happen naturally as people age and small deposits may not affect your vision at all. But as these deposits get bigger and grow in numbers, they may start to damage your eyesight. This can cause blurry or distorted vision, most noticeably when doing some of the above-mentioned tasks such as reading. If left undiagnosed or untreated, dry macular degeneration could lead to wet macular degeneration, a far more serious condition.

Wet Macular Degeneration

Wet macular degeneration, the more severe of the two forms, happens when blood vessels grow under your retina. This is commonly a product of leaving dry macular degeneration untreated.  These new blood vessels are weak and prone to leaking fluids. Because of those direct spills, your vision can become turbid, to the point of straight lines looking wavy, blind spots developing in your vision, and even permanent loss of eyesight. 

This is a very serious condition, although it only affects 10% of people afflicted with macular degeneration. If left untreated, those blood vessels and their leakages may form a scar, which further complicates ocular health and increases the risk of blindness. 

Signs of Macular Degeneration

Early on, there are typically no obvious symptoms of DMD. You might not notice anything is wrong with your vision until it progresses to a dangerous degree or affects both eyes.

Dry Macular Degeneration Symptoms:

  • Distorted or blurry eyesight
  • Blurred or dark spots in the center of your vision
  • Difficulty reading (requiring very bright light)
  • Difficulty driving
  • Difficulty recognizing faces
  • Poor color perception (a rare symptom)

If you display any of these symptoms yourself or notice them in a loved one,  you should book an appointment with an optometrist as soon as possible. Early treatment slows down the disease or makes it considerably less severe over time.

Risk Factors & Causes

Even though the causes of AMD aren’t completely understood by science, some environmental and high-risk factors increase the odds of developing it.

  • Age – diagnosis rates increase exponentially as people age
  • Genetics – DMD is a hereditary condition, be aware of eye disease history in your family
  • High Blood Pressure
  • High Cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Smoking – Dry MD is 2 to 3 times more likely to emerge in people that smoke compared to non-smokers.

DMD Diagnosis 

Routine eye exams provide a few methods in diagnosing macular degeneration. People over the age of 65 should have an eye exam conducted at least once per year. Routine eye exams are especially important if you are exposed to any of the aforementioned risk factors. Your optometrist can identify macular degeneration at its earliest stages, preventing vision loss and ceasing growth of the disease.

Some of these exams are completely non-invasive, while the more advanced diagnosis methods can be more direct. Your doctor may recognize DMD through basic eye exams, such as a visual acuity test. A thorough examination of the back of your eye, or using tools like the Amsler Grid, can further help eye doctors make an accurate diagnosis. 

Advanced procedures might be necessary in more complicated cases. These can include fluorescein angiography, and optical coherence tomography, which are methods that utilize small cameras and digital imaging.

Diagram of the eyeball showcasing the difference in optic nerves between normal vision and dry or wet macular degeneration

Living With Dry Macular Degeneration

There is not yet a complete cure for macular degeneration. But don’t fret- it’s a very manageable disease, especially when discovered early. By simply adopting healthier habits, you can dramatically slow down the disease. It is also paramount to get your eyes checked regularly, specifically as you enter middle-age.

For wet macular degeneration, the more complicated condition, your doctor may prescribe medication. Angiogenesis inhibitors prevent the forming of the blood vessels characteristic of wet macular degeneration. Laser therapy and surgery can be recommended in more severe cases of wet MD.

Healthy Lifestyle, Healthy Eyes

When discovered early, treatment for dry macular degeneration is generally nutritional therapy and lifestyle modifications. Just having a healthier diet and exercising regularly will considerably slow down the effects of AMD. Medical or nutritional supplements, when prescribed by your eye doctor, can also positively contribute to ocular health.

The most important thing to keep in mind is preemptive care. Eating well, staying active, and avoiding smoking, all greatly decrease your odds of developing dry macular degeneration. 

If you do develop symptoms, a visit to your eye doctor can test for DMD and provide relevant treatments. Proactive behaviors will slow, or even stop the progress of degenerative disease. Early diagnosis and correct care give you an upper hand in visual health, and best control dry macular degeneration.

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