Macular Degenerations vs. Glaucoma: Symptoms and Causes
Vision impairment is a national health concern and has a negative impact on physical and mental health. In the United States, macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss in people aged 50 and older. Glaucoma affects fewer people, but it also can lead to complete loss of vision and is the second leading cause of blindness worldwide.
Both conditions are considered degenerative eye diseases, and it is possible for people to be affected by both diseases simultaneously. In this article, we’ll discuss the characteristics of both conditions and vision changes they can cause.
There are two basic types of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), wet and dry. About 80%–85% of people affected by macular degeneration have dry macular degeneration. In dry macular degeneration, parts of the macula, which is at the center of the eye’s retina, get thinner and clumps of protein grow. Dry macular degeneration often affects both eyes, and there is no treatment or cure at this time.
Although less common, wet macular degeneration is considered more serious than dry macular degeneration. In wet macular degeneration, new, abnormal blood vessels grow under the retina, which projects light onto the back of your eye. These vessels often leak blood or blood products, which scars the macula. Vision loss occurs faster than with dry macular degeneration. Treatment is available for wet macular degeneration, and it can slow or stop the growth of blood vessels, slowing down vision loss.
Certain common risk factors cannot be changed, such as a family history of macular degeneration and being White. However, lifestyle choices, such as cigarette smoking, consuming lots of high saturated fats, being overweight, and having high blood pressure, can be addressed. Managing these factors can help decrease your potential of developing dry AMD.
Macular Degeneration Doctor Discussion Guide
The eye continually makes a fluid called aqueous humor, the clear liquid in the front part of the eye. It nourishes your eye and keeps it inflated.
As fluid drains out of the eye via the drainage angle, new fluid is made that replenishes the eye. If the drainage angle gets blocked, aqueous humor remains in the eye and pressure increases. As the pressure in the eye rises, it compresses the optic nerve and damages it. This causes the condition known as glaucoma.
Glaucoma is categorized as either open angle glaucoma, the most common type, or angle closure glaucoma. In open angle glaucoma, the aqueous humor drains slowly, which causes pressure to build up gradually. This type of glaucoma is typically painless, and people who have it don’t experience vision changes initially. However, people will eventually notice blind spots in their peripheral visual fields.
Angle closure glaucoma occurs when the iris, the colored part of your eye, completely and suddenly blocks the drainage angle. Pressure rises quickly in this type of glaucoma, and it causes symptoms such as:
- Blurry vision
- Severe eye pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Halos around lights or rainbow-colored rings
Risk factors of glaucoma include:
- Age over 40 years
- Family history of glaucoma
- African, Hispanic, or Asian heritage
- History of high eye pressures
- Farsightedness or nearsightedness
- History of eye injury
- Long-term steroid use
- Corneas that are thin in the center
- Thinning optic nerve
- History of diabetes, high blood pressure, migraines, poor blood circulation, or other diseases that affect the entire body
The macula, located in the central portion of the retina, is the eye structure that composes the central visual fields as well as fine visual details. In people affected by macular degeneration, there is a loss of central vision. Fine details, regardless of distance, are difficult to see, but peripheral, or side, vision typically remains normal.
People affected by open angle glaucoma may not notice any visual changes initially. As damage to the optic nerve continues to increase, though, people will start to notice blind spots in peripheral vision. Eventually, total blindness can occur.
People affected by angle closure glaucoma will typically have sudden onset of eye pain, see halos around lights, or experience blurred vision. Other symptoms can include headache, nausea, and vomiting.
Minimizing certain lifestyle choices that are strongly correlated with the development of macular degeneration can help prevent AMD. Lifestyle changes to consider include:
- Quitting smoking
- Making dietary changes, such as limiting foods high in saturated fats
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Maintaining a healthy blood pressure
- Managing other chronic conditions like diabetes
The Age-Related Eye Diseases Study (AREDS) indicates that specific dietary modifications, including taking specific vitamins and minerals, can slow macular degeneration. Foods to help prevent AMD include leafy green vegetables, yellow fruits and vegetables, and fish.
The best prevention for glaucoma is to get routine eye exams by an eye specialist, such as an ophthalmologist (a medical doctor specializing in eye diseases) or optometrist (a primary vision care doctor). Determining if there is a family history of glaucoma is also important due to the hereditary component of the disease. Similar to macular degeneration, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, and keeping your blood pressure and other chronic conditions under control can minimize vision loss from glaucoma.
As of now, there are no surgeries or specific procedures that can cure dry AMD. There are options available to assist people living with the condition, however. Low-vision tools, such as magnifying tools and handheld computers, can be helpful. Low-vision techniques, like using high-lumen light sources, reducing glare, and increasing contrast can also help compensate for central vision loss.
A vision rehabilitation specialist can provide you with techniques to leverage your peripheral vision to be able to read, shop, and even cook. They can also determine other services that may be helpful, such as mobility services or performing home assessments to minimize hazards and injury risk.
People with glaucoma do have some medications and procedures available to help prevent vision loss. Eye drops can be prescribed. They can either decrease aqueous humor production or help assist aqueous fluid drain through the drainage angle. The ultimate goal is to decrease eye pressure and prevent optic nerve damage.
People who have glaucoma may be eligible for laser surgery. These procedures, often done in an ophthalmologist’s office or a same-day surgery center, allow the ophthalmologist to widen the drainage angle to assist with better draining of the aqueous humor. In the case of angle closure glaucoma, the laser surgery can be used to create a tiny hole in the iris to allow the aqueous humor to drain through the drainage angle.
Age-related macular degeneration and glaucoma both affect your eyes, but they do so in different ways. There are two types of macular degeneration: dry and wet AMD. Both can cause central vision loss, but peripheral or side vision is usually not affected. On the other hand, glaucoma can cause complete vision loss. There are no treatment options for dry AMD, but there are treatments available for wet AMD and glaucoma.
A Word From Verywell
Getting routine eye examinations by a specialist such as an ophthalmologist or optometrist and embracing a healthy, active lifestyle can help prevent macular degeneration and glaucoma and their potential impact on your vision. Make sure you locate a reputable eye specialist to discuss use of any medications or therapies to prevent macular degeneration or glaucoma.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can you prevent macular degeneration?
Macular degeneration cannot always be prevented because the top risk factors are family history and being White. Minimizing other risk factors, such as being overweight and using tobacco products, has been shown to decrease your risk of developing macular degeneration.
Since early symptoms of macular degeneration are not always evident in people affected with macular degeneration, having routine annual eye exams by an eye specialist, such as an ophthalmologist or optometrist, is necessary because eye specialists can do testing to identify early signs of AMD.
How do you reverse macular degeneration naturally?
There is no way to reverse macular degeneration at this time. Current evidence supports decreasing risk factors, such as tobacco cessation and maintaining a healthy weight, as well as eating specific vitamins and minerals along with a diet rich in fish, leafy green vegetables, and yellow fruits and vegetables to help with the condition.
How long does it take to lose your sight with macular degeneration?
Blindness is not a common result of macular degeneration. Macular degeneration causes loss of vision in the central part of the visual field only. Peripheral vision typically is unaffected. However, macular degeneration can impact your ability to drive, read small print, even see faces. Walking around and being able to not bump into things is typically achievable due to peripheral vision remaining intact.