Macular degeneration (MD) is the name given to a group of degenerative diseases of the retina that cause progressive, painless loss of central vision, affecting the ability to see fine detail, drive, read and recognise faces.
Macular degeneration is primarily a disease of the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), a layer of cells underneath the retina. The RPE is responsible for passing oxygen and nutrients to the retina and removing waste products to the blood vessels underneath.
Macular degeneration starts when this “garbage collection” breaks down and waste products from the retina build up underneath the RPE. These deposits, known as ‘drusen’, are easily seen by an eye care professional as yellow spots. In the early stages, there is typically no effect on vision. As the disease progresses, the RPE cells become sick and die, which can also cause a gradual loss of photoreceptor cells in the retina and progressive loss of central vision. This is known as ‘dry macular degeneration’. There is currently no medical treatment for this form of MD, although changes to diet and lifestyle can help to slow the disease.
In about 10% of people with MD, new, leaky blood vessels form under the retina (‘wet macular degeneration’). These can cause significant damage to the retina, with sudden loss of vision. This form of the disease can now be treated very effectively, providing the treatment is started soon after the blood vessels form. Any delay longer than a week or two can result in permanent loss of vision
Macular degeneration is progressive and painless and although it can lead to legal blindness, it does not result in total or ‘black’ blindness.
There is currently no cure for macular degeneration.
In the early stages of macular degeneration, when drusen first appear, you may not realise anything is wrong and you may still have normal vision. That is the best time to detect the disease by having a simple eye test with your optometrist or ophthalmologist. If the early signs are detected, then the important diet and lifestyle changes should be commenced without delay.
For more information, guidance, support and understanding contact the Macular Disease Foundation Australia on 1800 111 709 or www.mdfoundation.com.au
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