HELYN GUERRY, 88, OF Houston, looks around her room but struggles to make out the objects directly in front of her. Macular degeneration, a common eye condition among older adults, seriously blurs her central vision.
Driving is no longer possible for Guerry. Fortunately, she has a support system in place. "I have a grandson who's very near and dear, and he comes once a day," she says. He helps her catch up with paperwork and takes her to the grocery store because she can't read labels now. She also has occasional professional help from an aide who accompanies her on visits to the doctor.
Guerry can't read print books anymore. When she recently picked up her Kindle, she noticed her eyesight had deteriorated a bit more. Now she uses a machine that reads books aloud. Fortunately, she says, her hearing is still good.
Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of visual loss in the U.S., according to the National Eye Institute. As the population ages, it will only become more common. In 2010, among adults ages 50 and older, nearly 2.1 million people had macular degeneration. By 2050, that figure will more than double, according to NEI projections.
Macular degeneration is a disease of the retina. The retina records any images you see and transmits them to your brain through your optic nerve. The macula is the central portion of the retina and it's responsible for your central vision.
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The ability to recognize faces, read, write, watch TV, cook, drive and do other tasks depends on the macula. If it deteriorates, blurred areas can appear in the middle of your visual field. If the condition progresses, blurred areas may grow larger or blank spots may develop. Whatever you see may appear darker or distorted.
"If anything happens to that central vision, then your function is affected right away," says Dr. Bhavani Iyer, director of the Dan Arnold Center for Vision Rehabilitation in the department of ophthalmology and visual science at the University of Texas McGovern Medical School in Houston. "You can immediately tell: 'Oh, I can't see my grandchild's face,' or 'I can't see to read my newspaper or read road signs.'"
Up to 90 percent of cases are "dry" macular degeneration, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Dry macular degeneration involves small deposits of fatty protein that form on the retina. Wet macular degeneration, the more advanced form, involves the growth of abnormal blood vessels within the retina that can leak and damage the macula.