Of the list of aches, pains and ailments you’re more likely to experience after your 50th birthday, age-related macular degeneration is a particularly serious one. A leading cause of vision loss in the 50+ population, age-related macular degeneration affects the part of the eye needed to view objects straight in front of you in sharp focus.
Age-related macular degeneration does not lead to complete blindness, but it can interfere with everyday activities like driving, reading and cooking. While there’s no cure, simple lifestyle changes offer hope to the estimated 8 million Americans at risk of developing the condition and 2 million U.S. adults who have been diagnosed.
Age-related macular degeneration causes damage to the macula, a small, sensitive spot in the retina. Such damage can make objects in your forward line of vision appear blurry, distorted or dark. In “dry” age-related macular degeneration—the most common form of the condition—the damage results from a breakdown or thinning of the layer of retinal pigment epithelial cells in the macula. In “wet” age-related macular degeneration, a more severe form, abnormal blood vessels leak blood into the region of the macula (wet age-related macular degeneration is typically preceded by dry age-related macular degeneration). In its early and intermediate stages, age-related macular degeneration may pose no symptoms, but as it progresses, vision loss can become noticeable in one or both eyes.
People with a family history are at higher risk for the condition, as are smokers. “Smoking causes oxidative stress, which is part of the root cause of age-related macular degeneration,” says Jeffry D. Gerson, O.D., F.A.A.O., a VSP Vision Care optometrist with WestGlen Eyecare in Shawnee, Kan. “Stopping smoking can help to lower risk moving forward. It is never too late to stop!”
Other ways of reducing your risk include regular exercise, maintaining normal blood pressure and cholesterol, and proper nutrition. “In general, the things that a cardiologist would tell somebody are heart healthy are also ‘eye healthy’ and may prevent age-related macular degeneration,” Gerson says.
Diet in particular plays a powerful role, he adds. “When it comes to age-related macular degeneration, the most important foods are green leafy vegetables that contain lutein and zeaxanthin,” Gerson says. Not only do they help with prevention, these carotenoids, which are related to beta-carotene and vitamin A, can keep early stage age-related macular degeneration from advancing. “Eating just 6mg a day of lutein and zeaxanthin combined may decrease the odds of advanced age-related macular degeneration by 40 percent,” he says. That amount can be found in two cups of raw spinach; kale, collard greens and turnip greens are also rich sources of these nutrients.
“Since most people don’t eat enough of these or other vegetables, it is often appropriate and necessary to take an eye-specific supplement,” Gerson says. Indeed, a study led by the National Institutes of Health’s National Eye Institute, Age-Related Eye Disease Study 2 (AREDS2), identified a combination of vitamins C and E, lutein, zeaxanthin, zinc and copper in supplement form as the optimum formula to slow the progression of dry age-related macular degeneration. “Nutritional support cannot only potentially prevent progression, but also improve visual function and maybe even improve overall quality of life through vision,” Gerson says.
Wearing special blue light-filtering lenses may also help minimize oxidative stress on the eyes. “All digital devices, such as mobile phones and computer screens, emit this blue light,” Gerson adds.
Distinguishing age-related macular degeneration from other vision problems takes a trained eye. “For a patient, it is often difficult to differentiate between different eye diseases,” Gerson says. An eye doctor can diagnose age-related macular degeneration with a comprehensive, dilated exam. “Vision insurance is invaluable, as it is often what drives people to get routine preventative care. This may be when the earliest signs of age-related macular degeneration are seen or risk factors are discussed,” Gerson says. “The earlier it is detected, the more that can be done to prevent its progression.”
VSP Individual Vision Plans is VSP Vision Care’s individual insurance product, offering affordable and high-quality individual vision benefits directly to consumers. Individual vision coverage includes an annual eye exam with a low co-payment, allowance for glasses or contacts, and access to the largest doctor network in the industry with 34,000 doctors—all backed by a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee. VSP Direct offers the lowest out-of-pocket costs in individual vision care and a typical annual savings of $235 a year.
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