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If you’re over 65 and of European descent, you could be at risk for macular degeneration, the leading cause of age-related vision loss. Yet lifestyle choices can help to slow the disease’s progression and possibly even prevent it if initiated early enough, according to Dr. Michael Caruso, ophthalmic physician and surgeon at Atlantic Eye Center. This local eye surgeon is spreading the word about this debilitating disease that can permanently destroy vision.

“Most people have heard about glaucoma and cataracts,” he said, “but macular degeneration is another serious eye disease that people should know about. It’s an age-related disease that causes damage to the macula, the ultra-sensitive part of your retina. This is the part of our eye that gives us sharp focus in the center of our vision. We use it for reading, driving, recognizing faces, watching television and doing fine detail work.”

What is Macular Degeneration?

There are two forms of macular degeneration: wet and dry. Most people have the dry form, which is caused by the aging and thinning of the tissues of the macular. Vision loss is gradual.  Ten percent of people will have the wet form, where abnormal blood vessels form underneath the retina and leak blood and fluid. In those cases, vision loss is rapid and severe.

The condition, however, may be barely noticeable in its early stages. Words on a page may look blurred or straight lines may appear distorted. Then, there may be a dark or empty area that appears in the center of vision. Sometimes one eye compensates for the other and you don’t notice it at all. But gradually, the disease will progress, making it difficult or impossible to do some activities such as reading or threading a needle.

People with macular degeneration may be classified as legally blind, but macular degeneration does not usually result in total blindness. Sufferers of the disease may have enough peripheral vision to be able to take care of their daily needs.

It is estimated that 1.75 million Americans currently suffer from macular degeneration. The disease could affect as many as 3 million Americans by 2020, according to the Archives of Ophthalmology, due to the aging population.

Know the Risk Factors

The exact causes of macular degeneration are unknown. However, researchers have discovered several risk factors. These include:

  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Excessive exposure to sunlight
  • Being of European descent/Caucasian
  • Increased age
  • High blood pressure and/or cardiovascular disease
  • A family history of macular degeneration
  • Being female

Steps to Lower Your Risk

No cure is available for macular degeneration. However, people can take steps to limit their risk for the disease through lifestyle changes.

1. Don’t smoke. Studies suggest that smoking can double the risk for age-related macular degeneration.

2. Wear sunglasses or a brimmed hat to limit UV exposure. Excessive exposure to sunlight can damage the macula. People with light-colored eyes are especially at risk for sun damage.

3. Control your blood pressure. People with uncontrolled hypertension are three times more likely to develop the wet type of macular degeneration.

4. Exercise regularly. Regular cardiovascular activity may reduce the progression of the disease by 25 percent.

5. Eat a healthy diet. A diet rich in dark, leafy green vegetables can help decrease your risk for macular degeneration. A study by the National Institutes of Health revealed that a diet high in vegetables could reduce the risk by 43 percent.

6. Limit your fat consumption. Fat can increase the likelihood of getting the disease.

7. Schedule annual eye exams. A regular exam can help to detect macular degeneration in its earliest stages.

At Atlantic Eye Center, macular degeneration evaluations are part of each annual examination. They include viewing the macula with an ophthalmoscope and taking special photographs of the eye, called fluorescein angiography, to locate abnormal blood vessels under the retina.

For more information on Atlantic Eye Center or Cape Cataract Center, or to schedule an appointment, visit www.DoctorMichaelCaruso.com or call 609-465-1616.