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March 20, 2018  |  Login
Macular Degeneration
by James F. Balch, M.D. and Mark Stengler, N.D.

The macula is the part of the eye that allows us to see detail in the center of our vision field. When the macula breaks down or is damaged, fine work like reading, sewing, and painting becomes difficult or impossible. Small objects-stitches on fabric, for example, or type on a page-may look wavy or bent, and there may be dark spots over the item you're trying to see. This visual impairment begins at the center of the vision and, if not halted, will slowly expand toward the periphery.

In the United States, macular degeneration is the leading cause of serious visual impairment in people over fifty-five, and in those sixty-five and older, it is the second-highest cause of blindness, next only to cataracts. There are two kinds of macular degeneration: atrophic (or "dry") and neovascular ("wet").

Atrophic is by far the more common of the two and accounts for 80 to 95 percent of all cases. Although its effects usually don't show until a relatively advanced age, atrophic macular degeneration happens over a lifetime, as cellular debris gradually accumulates under the retina. No one knows exactly why this debris builds up, but it is thought that damage by free radicals (the unbalanced molecules that damage cells), along with inadequate supplies of blood and oxygen to the macula, play a significant role. Although no conventional treatment exists, many alternative therapies can halt and possibly reverse the retinal damage by fighting free radicals and improving circulation.

Neovascular macular degeneration isn't actually degeneration at all. Instead, it is caused by an abnormal growth of blood vessels under the retina. If these blood vessels leak, the fluid can scar the macula and impair central, detailed vision. Unlike atrophic degeneration, this form of the disease can frequently be reversed with laser treatment, as long as it's caught early enough. It can often be prevented altogether, with the same alternative therapies used to treat atrophic degeneration.

Major conventional risk factors for macular degeneration include smoking, atherosclerosis, aging, and high blood pressure. Research in recent years has proven that diet is a critical element in the prevention of this disease. A diet that's high in cholesterol and saturated fat appears to increase susceptibility, while a diet that's rich in fruits, vegetables, and fish is protective. Carotenoids, found in fruits and particularly in vegetables, are quite protective antioxidants against macular damage from sunlight. A holistic approach also considers the role of inefficient digestion and absorption, which can contribute to mineral deficiencies that play a role in this disease. Also, toxic metals can increase free radical damage of the macula and the eye and should be dealt with, if a problem. Finally, several nutritional supplements, especially minerals and carotenoids, have proven to be effective in the prevention and the treatment of macular degeneration.

If you experience any kind of blurred vision, do not attempt to diagnose yourself. See a physician or an eye doctor to rule out an underlying disorder; if you do have macular degeneration, your doctor should run a test to discover whether you are affected by the atrophic or neovascular form. And since both kinds of macular degeneration-as well as many other eye problems-can be detected by a doctor long before the symptoms appear, you should always have regular eye exams, especially if you're age fifty-five or older.

Next: What are the Symptoms of Macular Degeneration

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