It’s estimated that 10 million to 11 million Americans have age-related macular degeneration, which causes vision changes sometimes so severe that irreversible “legal blindness” can occur. (1) In fact, globally, macular degeneration is the leading causes of permanent vision loss in adults over 60. And another alarming finding? The number of people with macular degeneration symptoms living in the U.S. is expected to double to nearly 22 million adults by the year 2050, mostly due to the growing population of people over 65. That means 196 million adults worldwide will have at least partially lost their vision due to this disorder by 2020 and an estimated 288 million by 2040.
Older adults aren’t the only ones who can experience vision changes due to macular degeneration — smokers, those with a poor diets or nutrient deficiencies, and diabetics are also at risk. In addition to vision loss, macular degeneration symptoms can include spotty vision, seeing “blank” spots, color changes and difficulty reading.
Research suggests that no matter what your age, increasing your intake of vitamins and foods that protect the eyes might significantly decrease your chances for developing macular degeneration. In addition to adding eye-protecting foods to your diet — such as brightly colored veggies, omega-3 fats and berries — keeping up with other healthy habits like exercising, protecting your eyes from the sun and quitting smoking can also help preserve your eyesight.
What Is Macular Degeneration?
Macular degeneration is an eye disorder that affects cells in the part of the eye called the retina, thereby causing changes in vision. In those with macular degeneration, images that usually appear clear and sharp often become blurred at first, and then as the disease progresses they can become distorted, enlarged, cloudy, dark or spotted.
The retina is the lining of nerves located at the back of the eyes that responds to detection of light. Nerves and cells that make up the retina help us interpret light from the environment by reflecting light wavelengths and turning them into sharp, focused images. The specific area of the retina that’s damaged due to macular degeneration is called the macula, located at the center of the retina and responsible for forming “central vision,” or the images you see when looking straight ahead. (2)
Because people over 60 years old tend to have this eye disorder most often, macular degeneration is commonly referred to as age-related macular degeneration (AMD). There are two primary types of macular degeneration: wet and dry. The dry form is much more common, accounting for about 90 percent of all cases of macular degeneration. (3) Dry macular degeneration proceeds the wet type, which is more severe and leads to worsened vision loss.
Understanding age-related macular degeneration:
- When the diseases progresses, it can become known as neovascular age-related macular degeneration, also called wet macular degeneration. Another type of advanced AMD is geographic atrophy, also sometimes called late-dry macular degeneration.
- When someone has dry macular degeneration, metabolic deposits (or end-products) collect under the retina and contribute to scarring and vision changes. This is the more common type of macular degeneration in which the light-sensitive cells of the macula slowly break down over time.
- Wet macular degeneration causes leaky blood vessels to grow abnormally into the retina, causing swelling and bleeding in the affected eye. This can cause either sudden loss of vision or a slow progression of macular degeneration symptoms depending on the patient. Although wet AMC is much less common, accounting for only about 10 percent of all AMD cases, the wet type is usually more serious and accountable for about 90 percent of all cases of legal blindness due to AMD.
Macular Degeneration Symptoms and Signs
Each patient responds differently to having macular degeneration. Some experience less severe macular degeneration symptoms and slowed loss of vision compared to others. It’s possible to retain close to normal vision for years even while having macular degeneration, however the disease is considered progressive, degenerative and usually gets worse with time.
Although it’s possible to have macular degeneration in both eyes, it’s also common for only one eye to be affected. When only one retina becomes damaged, the other might start to compensate for the loss in vision. When this is the case, it can be hard to tell that macular degeneration is developing until it progresses.
Macular degeneration symptoms can include: (4)
- Blurred central vision, meaning usually blurriness appears in the center of one’s view when looking straight ahead.
- Over time the area that appears blurred can become larger or some spots might even appear blank.
- Straight lines becoming curved or distorted. Some experience colors becoming darker or less bright and vivid.
- Trouble with everyday activities like reading, making out faces, writing, typing or driving.
- In some cases of advanced macular degeneration, vision can be completely lost over time and permanent blindness can occur.
Macular Degeneration Symptoms Causes and Risk Factors
Macular degeneration forms due to inflammation and damage of interrelated tissues, nerves and cells in the eyes. These include change to the photoreceptors, retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), Bruch’s membranes and choriocapillaries (small blood vessels). The most important change to the eyes leading to vision changes is those involving the retina/macula cells. Doctors usually look for changes in retina (RPE) cell functions as an early and crucial marker that macular degeneration is developing.
Experts state that although there’s more to learn about exactly how and why macular degeneration develops, its pathogenesis is multifactorial, involving “a complex interaction of metabolic, functional, genetic and environmental factors.” Both genetics and non-genetic (environmental or lifestyle) factors play major roles in the development of AMD, which means that just because you might have a family history, it doesn’t mean you’re helpless in protecting your vision. A 2012 report published in the Lancet states that the major risk factors for developing macular degeneration include: (5)
- Being over the age of 60. The risk of getting advanced age-related macular degeneration increases from 2 percent for those between the ages of 50–59 to about 30 percent for those over the age of 75.
- Cigarette smoking
- Suffering from nutritional deficiencies due to a poor diet or absorption/digestive problems. A highly processed diet contributes to accelerated aging and low antioxidant intake.
- Cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, including markers like high blood pressure and fluctuating blood sugar levels
- Genetic factors or having a family history of vision loss
- Markers of high levels of inflammation and oxidative damage, which causes changes in lipid, angiogenic and extracellular matrix pathways
- UV light damage from too much sunlight exposure
Conventional Treatment for Macular Degeneration Symptoms
Ophthalmologists diagnose macular degeneration in patients by first ruling out other causes of vision changes, such glaucoma (caused by damage to the optic nerve) or astigmatism. Accurate diagnosis is made through a combination of a clinical examination and performing tests, such as retinal photography, angiography and optical coherence tomography. A growing field of genetic testing also now provides opportunities for improved risk assessment in patients with family histories of AMD. Molecular diagnosis and clinical testing of genetic variants are now being used by many doctors for early stage AMD diagnoses, management and treatment. (6)
Both eyes must be tested separately for AMD since only one might have changes. Similar symptoms of macular degeneration might be found in patients with other eye problems, so a proper diagnosis, as well as distinguishing which type of AMD a patient has (wet versus dry), is important for treating the condition correctly.
Currently there is no “cure” for macular degeneration, only ways to help prevent the disease from occurring in the first place in addition to strategies that help manage macular degeneration symptoms. The most common drugs and therapies used to stop AMD progression and save vision include:
- Medications such as EYLEA™ (aflibercept) or Lucentis® (ranibizumab injection)
- Macugen® (pegaptanib sodium injection), part of laser photocoagulation therapy
- Photodynamic therapy treatments, used to stop abnormal blood vessel growth and bleeding in the macula (caused by wet macular degeneration)
- Although less commonly offered, newer treatment strategies also include retinal cell transplants, radiation therapy, gene therapies and even use of tiny computer chips implanted in the retina that can help transmit nerve signals.
6 Natural Treatments for Macular Degeneration Symptoms
1. Consume a High-Antioxidant Diet
It’s been found that consuming dietary antioxidants, in addition to increasing levels through supplementation, can help slow down progression of macular degeneration. That’s because “oxidative injury” to the eyes (also called free radical damage or oxidative stress) plays a significant role in degeneration of cells and nerves in the retina/macula. (7)
Anti-inflammatory foods that help prevent or manage symptoms of macular degeneration include:
- Foods high in antioxidants (especially carotenoids) — Sources include brightly colored orange and yellow vegetables like squash, carrots, sweet potatoes, peppers, berries and citrus fruits. Dark leafy greens like spinach, kale or collards also supply important nutrients. Among berries, blueberries and cherries are especially beneficial since they’re considered super fruits due to supplying anthocyanin. Follow the advice to “eat the rainbow” since colored plant foods are critical sources of vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin E that have been found to keep eyes healthy. You can also use Manuka honey for cataracts and macular degeneration due to its high antioxidant content.
- Fresh fruit and vegetable juices — Homemade, unprocessed juices, such as carrot juice or green juice, can provide a high dose of essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that have many anti-aging effects.
- Water — Drinking enough plain water, in addition to staying hydrated by consuming things like herbal tea and coconut water, helps keep eyes hydrated and helps them flush out any debris.
- High-fiber foods — To keep toxins out of the body, help with gut health and nutrient absorption, and maintain a healthy weight, it’s critical to eat at least 25 grams of dietary fiber daily. High-fiber foods include soaked beans or legumes, veggies and fruit, nuts, seeds, and sprouted/soaked grains.
Foods to avoid that can contribute to macular degeneration include:
- Foods that cause inflammation — These include processed/packaged foods made with trans fats, hydrogenated fats, processed meat products, refined grains and added sugar.
- Too much caffeine and alcohol — Too much caffeine and alcohol can reduce blood flow to the eyes, contribute to toxicity that can lead to eye problems and cause dehydration, which drys the eyes.
- Added sugar in sweetened drinks — Too much sugar speeds the aging process and causes cellular oxidation.
- Too much fat — A new study done on mice found that bacteria in your intestines correlates with whether you will develop blinding wet age-related macular degeneration. Researchers found that “high‐fat diets exacerbate choroidal neovascularization (CNV) by altering gut microbiota.” (8)
2. Supplement to Protect the Eyes
Similarly to how antioxidants from your die help protect the eyes, supplements can too. The Age-Related Eye Disease Study established that a supplemental combination of antioxidants, including vitamin C and E, taken with zinc and omega-3s can slow progression of AMD. The top natural products for preventing macular degeneration include:
- Bilberry (160 milligrams twice daily): This anthocyanoside extract helps improve blood flow and contains flavonoids that help support eye function.
- Omega-3 fish oil (1,000 milligrams daily): Take at least 600 milligrams of EPA and 400 milligrams DHA in the form of fish oil or cod liver oil to help relieve intra-ocular pressure.
- Astaxanthin (2 milligrams per day): Astaxanthin is a potent free radical scavenger that can help prevent retinal damage.
- Zeaxanthin (3 milligrams daily): Another antioxidant that has anti-aging effects due to lowering oxidative damage.
- Essential oils: Frankincense essential oil has been demonstrated to improve eyesight, helichrysum oil improves vision and supports nerve tissue, and cypress essential oil improves circulation. Apply three drops of any of these essential oils twice daily on the cheeks and lateral eye area (next to the eyes), but be very careful not to put oils directly into the eyes.
- Lutein (15 milligrams daily): Found in fresh veggies and fruit, it can help prevent oxidative damage.
3. Quit Smoking
Smoking cigarettes has been found to be one of the most damaging habits someone can have due to its rapid age-accelerating effects. Cigarettes contain dozens of toxic chemicals that have been shown to raise inflammation levels, damage healthy tissue and cells, and contribute to nerve damage and vision loss. (9) Avoiding smoking is one of the most beneficial things you can do to protect your vision — and it’s even better that you don’t start to begin with!
4. Exercise and Maintain a Healthy Weight
In addition to reducing inflammation with a healthy diet, exercising regularly even into older age is an important tool for longevity. Exercise might help you maintain a healthy weight, helps normalize blood sugar and blood pressure levels, has anti-inflammatory effects, and more.
5. Prevent or Treat Markers of Cardiovascular Disease/Metabolic Syndrome
A history of cardiovascular disease and diabetes is one of the leading risk factors for eye disorders, including macular degeneration. Cardiovascular disease is usually a sign that inflammation levels are high and also sometimes that blood pressure levels are not within a normal range. A healthy diet, regular physical activity, drinking enough water, reducing stress and getting enough sleep are all beneficial for regulating blood pressure, normalizing blood sugar levels to prevent nerve damage and supporting heart health.
6. Protect the Eyes from Oxidative Damage Due to Light Exposure
Although sunlight in moderate amounts has its benefits (such as supplying us with immunoprotective vitamin D), too much can cause damage to the eyes. If you spend lots of time outdoors in direct sunlight, help protect your eyes from overexposure to UV rays by wearing sunglasses and a hat. Try not to stare directly into the sun, especially during peak times of day when the sun is strongest between about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. If you work on the computer for hours every day or use electronic devices often, give your eyes a rest about every 20 minutes to lower eyestrain and consider avoiding blue-light devices close to bed time.
Macular Degeneration Statistics and Facts
- People over 60 years old develop AMC much more often than those who are younger. Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision impairment worldwide and one of the leading causes of blindness in adults 50 and over.
- 733 million people are living with low vision and blindness worldwide due to macular degeneration. It’s believed that 14 percent to 20 percent of all adults between 60–80 years old might have at least early stage macular degeneration.
- The global cost of visual impairment due to AMD is estimated to be nearly $343 billion! The U.S., Canada and Cuba together spend approximately $98 billion yearly to treat vision loss due to AMD.
- AMD affects Caucasian American adults much more than any other ethnicity. Approximately 2.5 percent of white adults older than 50 have AMD, 0.9 percent of African-Americans, and 0.9 percent of Hispanics and people of other races.
- Women develop macular degeneration more often than men. About 65 percent of AMD cases occur in women compared with 35 percent in men. One reason this is true is because women generally have a longer life expectancy and are more likely to live past 80 years old, when AMD is most common.
Precautions Regarding Macular Degeneration Symptoms
Because the risk for eye problems, including AMD, increases substantially as you pass the age of 40, it’s important to keep up with doctors appointments and have a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least biyearly. If you have a family history of vision loss or macular degeneration, or other health problems like diabetes and heart disease that are related to nerve and eye damage, it’s crucial to talk to your doctor about any early warning signs of vision problems you experience.
Keep in mind that the recommendations above won’t always be able to help people with advanced AMD and won’t restore vision that’s already lost. (10) Patients respond differently to AMD treatments, and making healthy lifestyle changes should not replace care from a professional.
- Macular degeneration, commonly called age-related macular degeneration or AMD, is caused by damage to the retina and macula within the eyes. The macula is the small area located at the back of the eye that helps focus light and brings images into clarity.
- AMD affects adults older 60 most often. Macular degeneration symptoms and signs commonly include blurred vision when looking straight ahead, distortion of images, color changes and seeing spots.
- Natural treatments for macular degeneration include consuming a high-antioxidant diet, decreasing nutrient deficiencies, exercising to lower inflammation and regulate blood pressure, protecting the eyes from light damage, and quitting smoking.