A new JAMA Ophthalmology study found that one in every four cases of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) was missed by trained eye care professionals, a finding that could have serious implications for the growing population of older adults most at risk of developing the sight-robbing disease.
Researchers at the University of Alabama, Birmingham reexamined 644 patients (average age 69) who had undergone a dilated eye exam by an ophthalmologist or optometrist and discovered that fully 25 percent of those whose eyes had been deemed to be normal actually showed signs of AMD, the leading cause of irreversible vision loss for Americans age 50 and older in the U.S.
“As the baby boomer population comes into the years when age-related macular degeneration becomes more prevalent, we need to make sure that patients are properly diagnosed,” says lead study author David Neely, M.D., of the University of Alabama, Birmingham. “Fortunately in our study, no cases of the advanced form of the disease were missed.”
AMD affects 14 million Americans and is characterized by a loss of central vision, making everyday activities like reading, driving and watching television difficult. As the population ages, the number of people with the disease is expected to increase significantly.
While there is no cure, researchers have discovered ways to slow the progression of AMD through nutritional supplementation and, in more severe cases, with injectable anti-VEGF medications that shrink the abnormal blood vessels that are a hallmark of the advanced stages of the disease.
In the study, researchers found that about 30 percent of the undiagnosed cases of AMD would have benefited from treatment with AREDS2 vitamin and mineral supplements — containing high levels of vitamins C, E, zinc oxide, copper, lutein and zeaxanthin. The supplements have been shown to slow vision loss in those with AMD.
Given the large numbers of study participants whose eye disease was missed, Neely suggests that people become more educated about their risk factors, as well as be aware of symptoms.
Risk factors include age over 60, farsightedness, being female, a history of sunlight exposure, lighter colored iris, smoking and a family history of the disease.
Symptoms include blurry vision, dark spots in your vision and straight lines that suddenly appear wavy. The latter symptom should prompt immediate concern, Neely says. “If you look at a straight line and it appears wavy or there’s a kink in it—or if you see a central black spot in your vision—you need to see a doctor as soon as possible.”
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