What is Macular Degeneration?

Macular Degeneration (MD) is the most common cause of vision loss in older people in New Zealand. Some rare forms affect children and younger people, but the vast majority of people with MD are in the older age groups. One in seven people over 50 will experience MD. We now know that many people have a genetic pre-disposition to developing Age-related MD (AMD). Smoking puts people at a higher risk of AMD; we know that eating a healthy diet and exercise are protective, but the number of birthdays is the greatest risk factor… not something we can control!

The macular is part of the retina. If you think of your eye like a camera, the retina is like the film in a camera. When a person has macular disease, it is as though there is a scratch or graze on film. This means even if the person has the correct glasses, the picture will still be distorted, or have patches missing.

Macular disease affects the central vision, this means that when the person looks straight at a face, at some reading material, or their watch, a distorted or blurry patch will stop them seeing clearly.

Most people with macular degeneration have the “dry” kind, which comes on and progresses very slowly. There is generally no treatment for dry AMD, but sometimes the specialist recommends dietary supplements to try to halt the degeneration.

Sometimes dry AMD changes to become “wet” AMD. We do have effective treatments for wet macular disease in New Zealand. Treatment usually involves injections into the affected eye. This sounds alarming, but many elderly New Zealanders have regular injections at the eye clinic, they generally cope very well with the procedures, which help them to retain the vision they have.

The success of treatment for wet AMD depends on beginning treatment early, as soon as the wet disease develops. If a person notices sudden changes in their central vision, or straight lines appear distorted, with a wobble or kink, then they should arrange to see their optometrist as soon as possible, ideally within a few days. The optometrist will be able to examine the retina and macula and refer on to an ophthalmologist if treatment is necessary.

The good news about AMD is that the disease is limited to the central vision. This is troublesome because it makes reading and recognising faces difficult, however the peripheral vision is not affected. People with AMD are able to move around without bumping into doorways and they can be reassured that they will never go completely blind.

Blind Low Vision NZ can help people to understand which part of their vision is not working well. This is especially helpful when they want to explain to family and friends what is going on. Staff at Blind Low Vision NZ can help people to come to terms with their vision loss, and to learn to use new techniques or equipment to make the most of their remaining vision, so that they can continue to do the things that are important to them.

To learn more, visit the Macular Degeneration New Zealand website.