Get The Facts: Age Related Macular Degeneration

What is macular degeneration?

It sounds like its’ name – deterioration of the cells in the macula. Macular degeneration is a progressive and incurable eye disease, which you’ll often hear referred to as age-related macular degeneration or AMD/ARMD.  The macula is found roughly in the center of the retina, in the back of the eye.  As a whole, the retina senses light and sends signals to the back of the brain. Possibly the most specialized and sensitive part of the retina, the macula allows you to clearly see details of an object in front of you. While most prevalent in older adults, you shouldn’t let the name “age-related” fool you; cases of macular degeneration can also occur in youth. In those patients it’s referred to as juvenile macular degeneration or Stagardt’s Disease.

Facts about age-related macular degeneration.

As with many eye conditions, macular degeneration may be barely noticeable in its very earliest stages. Changes in the macula may be seen by your eye care physician but at this point, these early changes will not cause any reduction in vision.  Since most people won’t have vision loss at disease onset, regular exams with an eye care provider are important.   Sometimes only the vision of one eye is affected while the other eye continues to see normally.  In this situation the normal eye takes over and we can continue to see well, hiding the fact that changes may be occurring in the affected eye.


According to the journal Eye and Vision, macular degeneration affects 11 million adults in the United States; worldwide estimates are as high as 170 million.  It is the leading cause of vision loss in the U.S. and the 3rd globally.  Age being the greatest risk factor, the prevalence of AMD in the U.S. is anticipated to increase to 22 million by the year 2050, while the global prevalence is expected to increase to 288 million by the year 2040. In the U.S., the prevalence of AMD is similar to that of all invasive cancers combined and more than double the prevalence of Alzheimer’s Disease. This high prevalence leads to an annual $4.6 billion direct healthcare cost due to AMD in the U.S. As the aging population increases, this expenditure is likewise expected to increase proportionately.

Risk Factors:

Some risk factors are modifiable, and others are not.  The leading nonmodifiable risk factor is age, with macular degeneration being most common in those over 60 years of age. AMD has a hereditary component, as it runs in families and researchers have identified several genes that are related to developing the condition. Gender is a risk factor as women generally have a longer life expectancy than men and are therefore more likely to develop age-related macular degeneration. According to the National Eye Institute (NEI), in 2010, 65 percent of AMD cases were in women compared with 35 percent in men. Macular degeneration is more common in Caucasians.

The NEI also reports that in 2010, 89 percent of Americans with AMD were white. By comparison, black and Hispanic American populations each accounted for four percent of macular degeneration.  A final nonmodifiable risk factor is cardiovascular disease which is associated with the development of AMD. Some modifiable environmental factors include smoking, obesity, and diet.

What Can You Do?

The best way to spot AMD at its earliest stage is to stay up to date on your annual eye exams. This disease may present little or no symptoms in the beginning stage, making it almost impossible to diagnose without the help of a professional eye doctor.