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Early Warning Signs of Macular Degeneration

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a senior man sitting on a couch squints at his phone due to vision loss from macular degeneration

Macular degeneration is an age-related eye condition that can cause partial vision loss. The early symptoms are almost invisible, so regular eye exams are necessary.

Some of the earliest detectable symptoms include difficulty seeing in low light, dullness of colors, and seeing blank spots in your vision. These symptoms become pronounced during the middle to late stages of the disease. 

Recognizing the signs of macular degeneration can help in early intervention and treatment. Your optometrist can identify and diagnose macular degeneration during your eye exam or in an eye emergency. There are a few signs of the condition that you can learn to identify and take action.

What Is Macular Degeneration?

Age-related macular degeneration is the most prevalent cause of vision loss in people over 50. When the macula (a part of the retina) is damaged, you can begin to lose your central vision. Daily tasks like reading or driving may become increasingly difficult. Peripheral vision usually stays intact, leading to gaps in what you can see.

Types of Macular Degeneration 

Macular degeneration comes in two types: dry and wet. Dry macular degeneration develops gradually and is caused by clusters of fats and proteins, called drusen, that accumulate under the macula. As you age, the macula wears down, affecting the retina’s ability to send messages to the brain. This is the most common type of macular degeneration.

Wet macular degeneration is less common but serious. If abnormal blood vessels develop under the retina and begin to leak blood or fluid, it can scar the macula leading to rapid vision loss. This is considered an eye emergency and you should consult your optometrist immediately if you identify these symptoms.

What Are the Early Warning Signs of Macular Degeneration?

Macular degeneration can develop invisibly, and you can be unaware that you have the condition until the later stages. Identifying it on your own in the early stages can be challenging, which is why optometrist visits are so critical.

If you’re sensitive to changes in your vision, you may notice:

  • Difficulty seeing in low light
  • Trouble seeing colors
  • Blurred vision

People who experience these symptoms often aren’t alarmed or don’t notice them at all.

Symptoms of Macular Degeneration 

In the later stages of macular degeneration, symptoms become more pronounced. You may experience indicators such as:

  • Blurriness in the center of your vision
  • Seeing blank spots
  • Colors appearing duller

If these symptoms appear suddenly and intensely, it may be a sign of wet macular degeneration and should be considered an eye emergency.

What Are the Risk Factors for Macular Degeneration?

A few factors contribute to the likelihood of developing macular degeneration, including:

  • A family history of the condition
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • High saturated fat diet
  • Being over the age of 50
  • Smoking cigarettes

If you have any risk factors and experience any symptoms of macular degeneration, see your optometrist for diagnostic tests to assess whether you have the eye disease.

How Is Macular Degeneration Diagnosed? 

Your optometrist can diagnose macular degeneration during a standard dilated eye exam. Using eye drops, your optometrist will dilate your eyes to observe the retina and macula at the back of your eye. Following an exam using pupil dilation and visual acuity tests, they may employ additional methods to confirm their diagnosis.

Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) 

OCT scans multiple layers of the eye tissues using a special light beam to generate cross-sectional images. This test can help diagnose various eye conditions, including macular degeneration.

Amsler Grid

The Amsler grid can be used as a home test and in the optometrist’s office to detect signs of macular degeneration. An indication of the condition is the inability to see straight lines. Instead, lines appear wavy or disappear altogether. If your eyes can’t see the structured grid as a checkerboard pattern, it may signify macular degeneration.


A new, advanced diagnostic tool to detect the early stages of macular degeneration is AdaptDx. The test measures dark adaptation, one of the earliest signs of macular degeneration. It measures the Rod Intercept (how long it takes for your eyes to adapt to darkness) and gives a score based on the number of minutes it takes for dark adaptation to occur.

This tool can help optometrists identify macular degeneration much earlier than other diagnostic tests. We can complete the test during an eye exam in a matter of minutes.

How Is Macular Degeneration Treated?

As a progressive, degenerative condition, there is no cure for macular degeneration but a few options for treatment are available. During the early stages of macular degeneration, some lifestyle changes you can implement include:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Eating a balanced diet
  • Lowering blood pressure and cholesterol to a healthy range
  • Reducing ultraviolet ray exposure
  • Exercising regularly

As the symptoms develop, your optometrist may recommend supplements to slow the progression of the disease, but there are currently no treatments for late dry macular degeneration.

Test for Age-Related Macular Degeneration

Comprehensive eye exams can help detect signs of macular degeneration before you notice symptoms. If you have risk factors, your optometrist may recommend lifestyle changes to keep your body and eyes healthy.

Book an appointment with Family Focus Eye Care to test for macular degeneration and help maintain healthy vision. 

Written by Dr. Joseph Rich

Dr. Joseph D. Rich moved to Columbia shortly after completing his doctorate at Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, TN. Growing up and completing his undergraduate work in biology, chemistry, and business management at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, MO, Dr. Rich considers himself a full-fledged Mizzou fan and actively enjoys going to as many games as possible.
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