The Three Stages of Macular Degeneration Explained

You’ve probably heard of cataracts and glaucoma, but what about macular degeneration? Macular degeneration is an incurable eye disease that causes more vision loss than cataracts and glaucoma combined each year. 

At Cooper Eye Care, our team of experts want you to know that, while macular degeneration is incurable, early treatment can slow the progression of the disease. Here, we discuss the three stages of macular degeneration, as well as factors that can make it more likely you will develop the disease. 

Overview of macular degeneration

Macular degeneration is a disease that causes the middle part of your retina, the macula, to deteriorate over time. Your macula focuses your central vision and allows you to read, drive, recognize faces, and see fine detail. Macular degeneration occurs slowly, which can make it difficult to realize something is wrong with your vision — especially because most people expect their vision to worsen with age. 

There are two types of macular degeneration: wet and dry. The majority of people with macular degeneration, about 85-90%, have the dry type of the disease. Although there is a type of macular degeneration called Stargardt disease that affects younger people, the majority of cases are related to age, which is why you sometimes see the condition referred to as age-related macular degeneration. 

The stages of macular degeneration

Macular degeneration is divided into three distinct stages: early, intermediate, and late. Small deposits of a substance called drusen form, and are the first sign of macular degeneration. These deposits prevent the flow of oxygen and nutrients to your retina, which causes certain cells in your retina to die. 

Early stage macular degeneration

You may not realize you have macular degeneration in the earliest stage. The first symptom for most people is worsening night vision. Since worsening vision overall is common as you age, you may not realize anything is wrong. 

You’re likely to find yourself needing a brighter light for nighttime tasks, you may have trouble seeing in dim light, or seeing at night. If you’re having issues seeing at night, talk to your doctor during your regular eye exam. Your doctor can check for signs of drusen. 

Intermediate stage macular degeneration

During this stage, the disease progresses to the point you may have a blurry spot in your vision, and you may begin to have difficulties seeing contrasts. Additionally, you may experience: 

The drusen deposits are larger during the intermediate stage, and there may be pigment changes. Even at this stage, you may not realize there’s a serious problem. 

Late stage macular degeneration

During late stage macular degeneration, vision problems increase dramatically. Vision loss becomes noticeable, and you may have problems recognizing faces, seeing detail, and central vision loss. 

Risk factors for macular degeneration

Although scientists don’t understand exactly why some people develop macular degeneration and others don’t, there are some factors that raise your risk of developing it. 

Your family history is important because there’s a genetic component involved in macular degeneration. If you know someone in your family has macular degeneration, you should discuss it with your doctor. Your race matters; white people are more likely to develop the disease than other races. 

Smoking is an important risk factor because smokers are twice as likely as non-smokers to develop macular degeneration. If you’re a smoker, you should consider quitting. 

Treatment of macular degeneration

There’s no cure for macular degeneration, but treatment can slow the progression of the disease. The sooner you get treatment, the slower the drusen proliferates and grows, meaning your vision is better for longer. 

If you have risk factors for macular degeneration, or you’ve been experiencing issues with night vision, schedule an appointment at Cooper Eye Center. 

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