We see things because of a thin layer of light-sensitive nerve cells at the back of the eye called the retina. The macula is the area of the retina that receives the light from what you're directly looking at - the very centre of your vision. It has a very high density of cells, which is why vision is sharpest straight ahead. In most people the macular area does its work unnoticed, but there are a number of situations in which the macula doesn't function properly- the most common of which is called Age-related Macular Degeneration (ARMD).
Age related macular degeneration is the most common cause of vision loss in the developed world. Over a five year period, 500,000 Australians will develop early signs of ARMD, and 40,000 will have their vision significantly affected by ARMD. Most of those will be in the older age-groups, but age related macular degeneration can also affect people under 50.
In age related macular degeneration, the central ‘directly-where-you-are-looking' vision is affected. Often the peripheral vision is still good, so many people with ARMD can still see well enough to function well at home. Tasks that require good vision - like reading, watching TV, craftwork, or even recognising faces – become more difficult.
Early symptoms maybe just having more trouble with fine detail work, a ‘smudge' or patch of distortion in the centre of the vision. This may progress to either a larger area of distorted vision, a greyed out patch, or sometimes a black patch in the centre of the vision. Often the early symptoms will only be in one eye, and may go unnoticed. Age related macular degeneration may progress either slowly or rapidly. Not everyone with ARMD progresses to severe vision loss.
People who have a family history of age related macular degeneration or who have unusual maculas should attend regular eye examinations. Digital retinal photographs are taken and if necessary optical coherence tomography (OCT) scanning will be done, as well as other tests, to determine if an eye is at risk.
We can give advice on how to reduce the risk of the age related macular degeneration development and progression. Genetic predisposition and increasing age obviously can't be changed, but going smoke-free, reducing UV exposure and some simple dietary changes can be used to reduce the chances of the ARMD getting worse.
Over the last few years some new treatments have emerged, and can arrange a referral to specialist ophthalmologists if this treatment is likely to be of help.
Once treatment is underway, or if treatment is unlikely to help, we are able to help people with age related macular degeneration use the level of vision they have. Some are helped by special glasses for reading, others by magnifying devices, and advice on how to make the best of lighting. We're also able to explain how ARMD affects vision to sufferers, and their families too, because understanding this condition really helps in providing the best support and care.