Keeping an eye on your health

by Gwen Allen
It’s a fact: With age, our bodies deteriorate. Our eyes are no exception. In fact, most people over the age of 60 require some sort of assistance with reading glasses or bifocals.

Though common, one age-related eye disease is often overlooked. Age-related macular degeneration is a medical condition usually of older adults resulting in a loss of vision in the center of the visual field, and is estimated to affect some 9 million Americans’ vision every year, robbing them of some of life’s simplest pleasures.

“The amount of people it affects in the U.S. alone is more than the entire population in New York City,” said Guy Eakin, director of research grants for Macular Degeneration Research at the American Health Assistance Foundation (AHAF). “This means that it affects more people than the top 13 cancers. The problem is a lot of people have it and don’t know it yet.”

With a simple eye exam, Eakin said patients can begin a road to maintain the vision they have left and slow down, if not stop, the disease all together. As the number one cause of legal blindness, macular degeneration demands public awareness, he said.

“It is life affecting, because people can’t drive and they are at an increase risk for injuries,” Eakin said.

Though it cannot be reversed, he said it is critical to catch it at its earliest onset.

“We are leaders in this research; we have helped develop therapies that can regenorate and restore some vision, slowing the progression to a degree of almost halting it,” Eakin said. “But people need to talk to a professional as soon as possible and ask them to schedule a baseline eye exam (to benefit from therapy).”

He said macular degeneration is particularily scary, because it affects direct vision.

“The major difference between this and glaucoma is that with glaucoma you get tunnel vision and still fairly have a clear central field,” Eakin said. “But with macular degeneration you lose central vision while the periphial vision is maintained.”

To understand this concept, he tells people to make a circle with their forefinger and their thumb, this takes away periphial vision similiar to glaucoma. For macular degeneration, Eakin said make a fist and put it in front of your eye; this blocks central vision leaving only periphial vision.

“This just gives you an idea of what it’s like, but it is not something that can be self-diagnosed, and every person is different and needs each eye tested individually,” Eakin said.

It is mostly genetic and more dominant in white individuals. He said there is evidence to support that the disease can be triggered by controllable factors within a persons lifestyle.

Smoking, high blood pressure and prolonged sun exposure all seem to lend to higher rates of macular degeneration.

Dr. Alyce Hofmann of Elburn Eyecare said the biggest way to offset macular degeneration is good preventative eye care.

“Anyone who works outside or recreational athletes need to wear the proper eye protection,” Hofmann said.

She said this means looking for glasses that say at least 80 to 90 percent UVA and UVB protection.

“Nothing will protect 100 percent, but any prescription glasses you get probably already have this clear coating on them,” Hofmann said. “It’s not the tint of the eyeglasses that protect its the UV clear coating, so you could have clear lenses as long as they have this coating they will protect your eyes.”

Hofmann also recommends vitamin supplements along with a healthy diet to maintain healthy eye function and delay complications.

“Once supplement that I recommend is Lutein; you can purchase it over the counter, I think it is the biggest thing to help circulation and blood flow to the back of the eye,” Hofmann said. “Nothing will really prevent it, but it could delay its onset.”

With regular eye care appointments, Hofmann recommends one a year for anyone over 40-supplements and an overall healthy lifestyle, the affects of the disease on future generations should diminish, she said.

“Overall, awareness is starting to grow, people in their 40s and 50s are watching their aging parents and starting to ask me about the disease,” Hofmann said. “So hopefully with increased awareness it will become less of a problem.”

For more information on macular degeneration visit www.ahaf.org or www.elburneyecare.com.