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Spotting macular degeneration and treatments

If you think you’re developing macular degeneration, getting tested is essential. Identify the signs, the treatments and when you should get tested.

Close-up of person's eyes
Close-up of person's eyes

When you visit an optometrist for your regular eye check, one of the things they’ll be looking out for is any possible signs of macular degeneration, a chronic eye condition that affects one in seven Aussies over the age of 50.  

What is macular degeneration? 

Macular degeneration is a condition that happens when the macula, which is a central part of the retina that helps you see fine details, starts to break down or deteriorate. This can lead to a loss of central vision, which is what you use for reading, driving and other everyday activities. 

It’s the leading cause of severe vision impairment in Australia for people over 40 and can lead to vision loss in one or both eyes. 

The types of macular degeneration 

There are two types of macular degeneration: dry and wet.  

Dry macular degeneration is more common and progresses slowly, while wet macular degeneration is less common but progresses more rapidly and can cause more severe vision loss. 

Who is at risk of developing macular degeneration? 

Macular degeneration is seen most in people over the age of 50, but it can occur at any age.  Besides getting older, other factors that can increase your risk of developing macular degeneration include: 

  • Having a family history of the condition 

  • Being a smoker, which makes you up to four times more likely to develop the condition 

  • Being obese  

  • Having high blood pressure  

  • Eating a diet that’s low in healthy nutrients and high in saturated fat 

  • Chronic exposure to UV rays. 

If you have any of these risk factors, it’s a good idea to talk to an optometrist about ways to help protect your vision. 

Having regular eye checks is essential. All Aussies should have an eye check every two years

The symptoms to look out for 

Macular degeneration often develops slowly and may not have any symptoms in the early stages. However, as the condition progresses, you might notice these symptoms: 

  • Straight lines appearing wavy or crooked 

  • Difficulty reading fine print 

  • Dark or empty areas in your central vision 

  • Difficulty recognising faces 

  • Decreased brightness or intensity of colours 

  • Difficulty adapting to low light levels. 

If you experience any of these symptoms, see your eye doctor for a comprehensive eye exam. And if you notice sudden changes in your vision, go immediately – this is considered a medical emergency.  

When to get tested 

Because macular degeneration doesn’t always involve noticeable symptoms, having regular eye checks is essential. All Aussies should have an eye check every two years – which is free under Medicare – but if you have any macular degeneration risk factors, your optometrist might recommend more frequent checks.  If you notice any changes in your vision, such as blurriness, distortion or blind spots, schedule an appointment with your eye doctor as soon as possible. In some cases, early detection and treatment of macular degeneration can help slow the progression of the condition.  

Treating macular degeneration 

The treatment of macular degeneration depends on the type and severity of the condition. There are currently no known cures, but there are treatments that can help slow the progression of the disease and preserve vision: 

  • Anti-VEGF injections: This is the most common technique to manage wet macular degeneration. Anti-VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor) drugs are injected into the eye to help prevent the growth of abnormal blood vessels and reduce fluid build-up. 

  • Photodynamic therapy (PDT): This treatment is sometimes used for wet macular degeneration. It involves injecting a light-sensitive drug into a vein in your arm, which then accumulates in the abnormal blood vessels in your eye. A special laser is used to activate the drug, which breaks down the abnormal blood vessels. 

  • Laser therapy: In rare circumstances, a high-energy laser is used to burn away part of the macular in cases of wet macular degeneration. 

  • Nutritional supplements: Certain vitamins and minerals, such as vitamins C and E, zinc and omega 3, can help slow the progression of macular degeneration. Your doctor may recommend a specific diet or supplement regimen based on your individual needs. 

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.