There are two types of macular degeneration, wet and dry, both of which lead to loss of vision in the center of the visual field, eventually making it impossible to recognize faces, to read or to drive. Macular degeneration is often asymptomatic in its early stages, but can later cause symptoms such as spots in the vision, blurry lines, problems with light/dark adaptation and decreased quality of vision, says Carolyn Glazer-Hockstein, M.D., of Eye Physicians & Surgeons, a retina specialist.
Lebowitz notes that 10 percent to 20 percent of people above age 80 have the condition. Macular degeneration is usually a result of older age or a genetic predisposition to the disease, and the likelihood of onset increases significantly with age. Smoking is also a risk factor for macular degeneration.
“It’s important for everyone to have regular eye exams with a dilated exam of the retina,” Glazer-Hockstein says. “Those in their 40s with a family history of macular degeneration should be checked annually. If there’s any question, they should be referred to an eye-care specialist.”
Once less treatable, wet macular degeneration can now be slowed down by early intervention with medications (Avastin, Lucentis and Eylea) that are injected directly into the eye on a regular basis. A drawback is the very high expense of these drugs, so researchers are now investigating longer-acting pharmacologics that will allow for longer lengths of time in between treatments, she adds.
Although there is no treatment yet for dry macular degeneration (which progresses much more slowly than wet), there are many studies going on and Glazer-Hockstein hopes that there will be a treatment “within the next few years.” For now, those with the condition may be advised to take higher than normal doses of vitamins C, E, copper, lutein, zeaxanthin and zinc.
“It’s such a more hopeful time for patients with these diseases,” Glazer-Hockstein says.
Ophthalmologists point out, too, that there are steps that people can take to help prevent age-related eye diseases such as macular degeneration. The National Institutes of Health’s Age Related Eye Disease II study of 2013, for example, provides evidence that high doses of vitamins C and E, as well as copper, zinc, lutein and zeaxanthin supplements, can greatly reduce the risk of advanced macular degeneration, Glazer-Hockstein notes. These supplements are recommended only for individuals at high risk in consultation with their physician, she adds.
As advances continue to be made in eye care, patients of all ages benefit from safer, more precise and more effective treatments. Just ask Williams. After 50 years of poor vision, she can finally see the world clearly.
“I feel like the $6 million man,” she says. “It’s like they put in these fake eyes and I’ve never seen so well in my life, even as a kid.”