What is macular degeneration and how can it be treated?

This stock image depicts a woman struggling with poor eyesight. The Zion Eye Institute has visiting specialists who help patients with macular degeneration, location and date not specified | Photo by SIphotography/iStock/Getty Images, St. George News

FEATURE — In the human eye, the retina acts like the film in a camera taking in images from the outside world. The images travel through the optic nerve and are then decoded in the back of the brain to create the vision. If the retina has damage, the individual will lose the ability to take in images of the outside world. This layer of tissue is vital to our daily living and perception of the outside world as humans. Unfortunately, many individuals become prone to disease of the retina as they age.

This undated image is an example of what happens to the eye during macular degeneration, location and date not specified | Image courtesy of Zion Eye Institute, St. George News

Age-related macular degeneration is one of the leading causes of vision loss in adults. If left untreated, the individual will continue to lose central vision over time. The risk of age-related macular degeneration increases with age. It is most common among older white Americans, affecting 14 percent of those aged 80 and older.

The disease takes hold in two variations – a dry and a wet form.

In the dry form, the layers of the retina degenerate over time. The macula is the region of the retina for central vision. Age-related macular degeneration causes macular thinning, damaging visual receptors that decipher the world around us. Individuals can develop blind spots in their central vision, leaving only peripheral vision. There are no effective treatments for this dry form of macular degeneration.

Wet age-related macular degeneration affects 1 out of every 5 individuals diagnosed with the condition. In the wet form of the disease, abnormal blood vessels begin to grow under the center of the retina (the macula). The abnormal growth pattern causes swelling and sudden severe vision loss.

The wet form of the condition typically arises from the dry form, therefore it is important to schedule regular office visits to catch the aggressive form of wet macular degeneration early on.

Dr. David Faber, a visiting specialist at Zion Eye Institute in St. George, Utah | Profile photo courtesy of Zion Eye Institute, St. George News

Although more aggressive, there are treatment options available for wet age-related macular degeneration.  An injection of medication into the eye is the most common treatment. The medication targets growth factors responsible for the abnormal formation of new blood vessels. This allows the swelling to diminish helping the macula return to a more functional form. Over time, individuals may recover vision and prevent future vision loss with consistent treatment.

There are things people can do to help prevent age-related macular degeneration starting with quitting smoking. Smoking substantially increases the risk of developing age-related macular degeneration by bringing pollutants into  the body. Regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight, along with keeping blood pressure and cholesterol under control, are also key.

Dr. Peter R. Miller, a visiting specialist at Zion Eye Institute in St. George, Utah | Profile photo courtesy of Zion Eye Institute, St. George News

A good diet is another important step in preventing age-related macular degeneration. Foods rich in antioxidants, such as dark green leafy vegetables, berries, grapes and nuts, help to remove waste products from the body. While making these foods part of a regular diet is the most effective, multivitamins are also beneficial.

Even with all of these things, it is still important to have yearly eye exams to catch and treat problems early.

Dr. David Faber is a fellowship-trained retinal specialist and ocular oncologist. His partner, Dr. Peter Miller, is also a fellowship-trained retinal specialist. Faber and Miller, along with their skilled technicians, see patients at Zion Eye Institute in St. George.

The doctors’ main office, Rocky Mountain Retina Consultants, is located in Salt Lake City, with additional offices in Wyoming, Montana, Nevada and Colorado. There has been a longstanding relationship between the two practices.

Both Faber and Miller participate in many clinical trials that develop innovative treatments currently available.

Rocky Mountain Retina along with Zion Eye Institute provide St. George residents access to cutting-edge treatments without having to travel to Las Vegas or Salt Lake City to see a specialist. To schedule an appointment call the toll-free number at 888-496-4400.

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