What Is Age-Related Macular Degeneration?

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) affects the macula—the part of the eye that gives you sharp, central vision. AMD causes vision loss and, if not controlled, blindness. More than 2 million Americans age 40 and older have the advanced form of this painless condition.

The more serious form, wet AMD, occurs when abnormal blood vessels grow under the macula. When these vessels leak blood and fluid, they can distort or cause swelling of the macula, eventually damaging it. Dry AMD, the more common type, is caused by the breakdown of light-sensitive cells that occurs with age and other risk factors.

Symptoms of AMD: People with wet AMD see straight lines as wavy. Dry AMD often has no symptoms. A late sign of dry AMD is a blurry spot in the center of vision, making it hard to recognize people or read, for instance. If your eye doctor detects drusen, or yellow deposits, under your retina, you're at risk for advanced dry AMD or wet AMD; the more drusen you have and the larger they are, the greater your risk.

How AMD is Treated: Treatment depends on the type of AMD you have and how advanced it is. Laser surgery destroys leaky blood vessels in wet AMD, preventing or slowing vision loss. But it's only used if the vessels aren't near the center of the macula.

During photodynamic therapy, a drug called verteporfin is injected into your arm and it sticks to abnormal blood vessels in the eye. A light shone in the eye activates the drug, which destroys abnormal blood vessels. When central vision is affected, the eye can be injected with ranibizumab or bevacizumab, drugs that stop abnormal vessel growth—an approach known as anti-VEGF therapy.

And certain nutrients might help. The NEI's Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) of about 3,600 people ages 55 to 80, published in the Archives of Ophthalmology in 2001, found that people who took 500 mg of vitamin C; 400 IU of vitamin E; 15 mg of beta carotene; 80 mg of zinc as zinc oxide; and 2 mg of copper as cupric oxide lowered their risk for advanced AMD by about 25 percent.

The cocktail did not prevent or cure AMD. (The copper prevents anemia caused by high levels of zinc.) The AREDS formulation is widely available but ask your doctor if it's right for you. It can cause side effects such as urinary tract problems or yellowing of the skin. Also, beta-carotene may increase lung cancer risk in smokers.

AMD Prevention Strategies: Don't smoke; it increases risk. Eat antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits—especially blueberries, kiwis and green leafy veggies, advises Peter Kaiser, M.D., a vitroretinal staff surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic.

Maintain a healthy weight; AMD may be more likely to progress in obese people. Other factors are beyond your control: Women, Caucasians, and people with a family history of AMD are especially at risk.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 15 Mar 2010

Last Modified: 24 Sep 2015