Macular degeneration

Introduction

Macular degeneration is a painless eye condition that leads to the gradual loss of central vision (the ability to see what is directly in front of you). Central vision is used while:

  • reading
  • writing
  • driving

Macular degeneration occurs when the macula (the part of the eye that is responsible for central vision) is unable to function as effectively as it used to.

Macular degeneration does not affect the peripheral vision, which means that the condition will not cause complete blindness. The peripheral vision, sometimes known as "side vision", is the outer vision.

Types of macular degeneration

There are two types of macular degeneration:

  • Dry macular degeneration (also called non-neovascular) affects the eyes gradually.
  • Wet macular degeneration (also called neovascular) can develop very quickly, and is more serious than dry macular degeneration.

Around 90% of cases of macular degeneration are dry.

How common is macular degeneration?

Macular degeneration most commonly affects people who are over 50, and is referred to as age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Around 30% of people who are over 75 have early signs of AMD, and about 7% have more advanced AMD.

It is estimated that by 2011 there will be 239,000 people in the UK with visual impairment caused by AMD.

For reasons that are not fully understood, AMD tends to be more common in women than in men. There are also a number of other factors, such as smoking, that can increase the risk of developing AMD.

Macular degeneration in young people is rare, and is usually caused by a genetic condition.

Outlook

Although AMD is the leading cause of visual impairment in the UK, almost everyone affected will have enough peripheral vision to continue their daily activities.

There is currently no treatment for dry macular degeneration, but techniques such as using magnifying lenses to read can help people to live with the condition. Dry AMD progresses slowly, over several years.

Wet AMD is more serious. It is estimated that around 70% of people with wet AMD will experience severe loss of vision within two years of receiving their diagnosis.

There are several treatment options available that can slow the progression of wet AMD and, in some cases, restore some of the lost vision. Treatment must be started as soon as possible.

Glossary

Macula
The macula is a small spot at the centre of the retina. It is the part of your eye where incoming rays of light are focused.
Retina
The retina is the nerve tissue lining the back of the eye, which senses light and colour, and sends it to the brain as electrical impulses.
Genetic
Genetic is a term that refers to genes. Genes are the characteristics inherited from a family member.
Visual impairment
The term visual impairment refers to anyone who is blind or partially sighted, rather than those who are short-sighted (myopia), or long-sighted (hyperopia).
Last updated: 04 October 2011

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