Most people lose some degree of visual acuity as they get older, but sometimes it goes beyond the ordinary effects of aging. People who, as they get older, are less and less able to see things in the center of the visual field, find themselves having difficulty adapting to low light levels, have trouble reading because the words are blurry, have increasing problems recognizing faces, or have other related symptoms may have a condition called age-related macular degeneration, in which the center of the retina decays over time. The condition tends to run in families. Macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in Americans over 50.
Why people develop macular degeneration, and why it progresses further in some patients than in others, is not clearly understood. Regular eye examinations can help catch the condition early on, though it’s very difficult to predict its incidence or course. There are some studies that suggests that aspirin may play a role in the development of the disease; however, the risk is extremely low even among patients on aspirin therapy.
The damage done by macular degeneration can’t be reversed, but it can be slowed. If the condition is advanced in one eye, vitamins seem to help protect the other one. Scientists are looking into blocking the production of certain proteins in the eye that are associated with the “dry” form of the disease. The more severe “wet” form that patients sometimes develop is typically treated with medications to stop the overgrowth of blood vessels in the eye that accelerates vision loss. Laser surgery can also be used.
It’s never too late to take steps to avoid age-related macular degeneration. If you smoke, it’s one of the many areas in which quitting will improve your health. Keeping drinking down to no more than one alcoholic drink per day also helps. In addition, eating a diet with limited trans fats and plenty of fish and green vegetables and getting enough exercise, and staying fit and keeping your blood pressure down, will benefit your eyes as well as your heart. Recent research has also found some benefit from carnosic acid, found in rosemary, in preventing the condition.