Dear Savvy Senior,
Is macular degeneration hereditary? My mother lost her vision from it before she died a few years ago, and now at age 65, I'm worried I may get it. What can you tell me?
Having a parent or sibling with macular degeneration does indeed increase your risk three to four times. But the good news is there are things you can do to protect your eyesight, and a number of treatments that are available if you do happen to get it. Here's what you should know.
What is AMD?
Macular degeneration, also known as age-related macular degeneration (or AMD) is the most common cause of vision loss in people over age 50, affecting about 10 million Americans.
AMD is a progressive eye disease that damages the macula, the part of the eye that allows us to see objects clearly, causing vision loss in the center of your vision. This affects the ability to read, drive, watch television and do routine daily tasks, but it does not cause total blindness.
There are two types of AMD - wet and dry. Dry AMD, which affects about 90 percent of all people that have it, progresses slowly and painlessly over a period of years. While wet AMD is much more aggressive and can cause severe vision loss in a matter of weeks or months.
Factors that can increase your risk of getting AMD include age (60 and older); smoking; excessive exposure to sunlight especially if you have light-colored eyes; certain genetic components; a family history of AMD; high blood pressure; obesity; and being Caucasian.
For anyone over the age of 60, it's a smart idea to get your eyes examined by an ophthalmologist every year. They can spot early signs of AMD before vision loss occurs. Early signs, however, may include shadowy areas in your central vision or unusually fuzzy or distorted vision. The Amsler grid at amslergrid.org, is a good tool to check your eyes for AMD.
While there's currently no cure for AMD there are some things you can do if you're high risk. One option is to talk to your doctor about taking a daily dose of antioxidant vitamins and minerals known as AREDS - vitamins C and E, plus copper, lutein, zeaxanthin, and zinc. Studies by the National Eye Institute have shown that AREDS can reduce the risk by about 25 percent that dry AMD will progress.
Most drug stores sell these eye supplements in tablet or soft gel form over-the-counter for around $20 to $30, but be aware that not all eye supplements contain the proper formulation. Choose either the PreserVision Eye Vitamin AREDS Formula, PreserVision Eye Vitamin Lutein Formula, PreserVision AREDS2 Formula, or ICAPS AREDS. These four options contain the right formula mix.
Other lifestyle adjustments that may help prevent or delay AMD include eating antioxidant-rich foods such as dark green, leafy vegetables, and cold-water fish for their omega-3 fatty acids; protecting your eyes from the sun by wearing UV protective sunglasses; controlling high blood pressure; exercising regularly; and if you smoke, quit.
Wet AMD Treatments
For wet AMD, there are several effective medications (Lucentis, Avastin and Eylea) available that can stop vision loss and may even restore it. These medications are given by injection into the eye, and repeated every month or two, perhaps indefinitely.
Note that each of these three drugs works equally in treating wet AMD, but there's a big cost difference. Avastin costs just $50 per month, compared with $2,000 for the other two. So experts recommend Avastin as the first choice for most people with wet AMD, especially if you don't have supplemental Medicare coverage.
Editor's Note: Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.