Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a painless eye condition that generally leads to the gradual loss of central vision but can sometimes cause a rapid reduction in vision.
Central vision is used to see what is directly in front of you. In AMD, your central vision becomes increasingly blurred, leading to symptoms such as:
- difficulty reading because the text appears blurry
- colours appearing less vibrant
- difficulty recognising people's faces
AMD usually affects both eyes, but the speed at which it progresses can vary from eye to eye.
AMD does not affect the peripheral vision (outer vision), which means it will not cause complete blindness.
Read more about the symptoms of age-related macular degeneration and the complications of age-related macular degeneration.
When to seek medical advice
If you notice that your vision is getting gradually worse, you should see your GP or optometrist.
If your vision suddenly gets worse, images are distorted or you notice blind spots in your field of vision, seek medical advice immediately. Either book an emergency appointment with an optometrist or visit your local accident and emergency (A&E) department.
If it is thought you may have AMD, you will be referred to a specialist called an ophthalmologist for tests and any necessary treatment.
Read more about diagnosing age-related macular degeneration.
Why it happens
Macular degeneration develops when the macula (the part of the eye responsible for central vision) is unable to function as effectively as it used to. There are two main types of AMD, called 'dry AMD' and 'wet AMD'.
Dry AMD develops when the cells of the macula become damaged as a result of a build-up of waste products called drusen. It is the most common and least serious type of AMD, accounting for around nine out of 10 cases.
The loss of vision is gradual, occurring over many years. However, an estimated one in 10 people with dry AMD will then go on to develop wet AMD.
Wet AMD develops when abnormal blood vessels form underneath the macula and damage its cells (doctors sometimes refer to wet AMD as neovascular AMD).
Wet AMD is more serious and without treatment, vision can deteriorate within days.
Read more about the causes of age-related macular degeneration.
Who is affected
AMD is the leading cause of visual impairment in the UK, affecting up to 500,000 people to some degree.
For reasons that are unclear, AMD tends to be more common in women than men. It is also more common in white people and people of Chinese ethnicity than people from other ethnic groups.
As would be expected by its name, age is one of the most important risk factors for AMD. The condition is most common in people over 50 and it's estimated that one in every 10 people over 65 have some degree of AMD.
How AMD is treated
There is currently no cure for either type of AMD.
With dry AMD, treatment is mostly based on helping a person make the most of their remaining vision, such as using magnifying lenses to help make reading easier.
There is also some evidence to suggest that a diet rich in green leafy vegetables may slow the progression of dry AMD.
Wet AMD can be treated with a type of medication called anti-VEGF medication, which aims to stop your vision getting worse by helping prevent further blood vessels developing. In some cases laser surgery can also be used to destroy abnormal blood vessels.
Early diagnosis and treatment of wet AMD is essential in reducing the risk of severe loss of vision.
Read more about treating age-related macular degeneration.
Reducing your risk
It is not always possible to prevent macular degeneration as it is not clear exactly what triggers the processes that cause the condition.
Your risk of developing the condition is also closely linked to things such as your age and whether you have a family history of the condition.
However, you may be able to reduce your risk of developing AMD, or help prevent it getting worse, by:
- stopping smoking if you smoke
- eating a healthy diet high with plenty of fruit and vegetables
- moderating your consumption of alcohol (read more about recommended limits)
- trying to achieve or maintain a healthy weight
- wearing UV-absorbing glasses when outside for long periods
Juvenile macular degeneration
In rare cases, macular degeneration affects younger people. This is sometimes known as juvenile macular degeneration.
It can be present at birth or develop later, but it is almost always caused by an inherited genetic disorder, such as:
- Stargardt's disease – the most common cause of juvenile macular degeneration, which can start in childhood or early adulthood.
- Best's disease (also known as Best's vitelliform macular dystrophy).
- Sorsby's dystrophy – often begins between the ages of 30 and 40 and causes some loss of vision.
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Page last reviewed: 08/11/2013
Next review due: 08/11/2015