Macular Degeneration: Who’s at Risk?

Risk factors for developing macular degeneration include both environmental and hereditary components.  The actual cause of this disease is not known, but is multi-factorial.

Age-related macular degeneration (aka ARMD) is the most common cause of blindness in the United States of adults, particularly those approaching the age of retirement.   Until relatively recently, the actual cause was not entirely known, and it still is not fully understood.

Hereditary/genetic factors which are uncontrollable

  • Age is the number one risk factor to consider when discussing ARMD.  It is the most common cause of blindness in those over the age of 60, and affects one third of adults over the age of 70.
  • Gender is a factor in that females are more likely to be affected, but this is most likely due to their longer life expectancy.
  • Those with a family history of macular degeneration are at greater risk, especially if the relative is in the immediately family.
  • Caucasians are more at risk than any other races, most likely due to genetic background and pigmentation.
  • Light colored eyes have an increased risk of developing macular degeneration because the lesser amount of pigment in the eye exposes it to greater damage from UV radiation.
  • The presence of the disease in one eye increases the likelihood of getting the similar condition in the fellow eye.

Risks factors which are controllable:

  • Smoking increases the chances of developing macular degeneration by a factor of 2 to 5 times.  It is most likely associated with a decrease in oxygen made available to retinal tissue which has a high oxygen demand.
  • Prolonged exposure of ultra-violet and blue light damages retinal tissue directly and leads the production of metabolic byproducts which are detrimental to eye function and lead to macular degeneration.
  • Diets high in fat and cholesterol, and low in antioxidants and nutrients have a higher risk in developing macular degeneration.  Fats and cholesterol ultimately affect blood vessels and flow, and nutrients and antioxidants are important for retinal tissue function and the removal of free radicals detrimental to cell metabolism.
  • Obesity is a risk factor in that an individual with a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30 is 2.5 times more likely to have macular degeneration.
  • Individuals with high blood pressure have an increased risk for macular degeneration due of its effect on the blood vessels, in that there is narrowing and therefore, less circulation to the retina.
  • Exercise improves cardiovascular health, therefore improves eye circulation, and is felt to decrease the risk for macular degeneration.

What Should I Do If I am at High Risk for Macular Degeneration?

If you have determined that you are at an increased risk for age-related macular degeneration, it would be important to first get a complete eye exam to include a thorough retinal evaluation.  This would determine if you are truly at high risk and should take appropriate steps in changing your life style and be placed on nutritional supplements with high antioxidant content.  You may also be advised as to how to monitor yourself in order to detect the onset of the more sight threatening form of macular degeneration, which is more successfully treated in its early stage.

To get a thorough eye exam, you should contact you local ophthalmologist/retinal specialist.