February has been declared age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and low vision awareness month. AMD is the number one cause of visual impairment for seniors. Macular degeneration often leads to low vision, a phrase eye doctors use to categorize significant visual impairment that is sometimes known as “legal blindness” or almost total blindness. In the case of macular degeneration, a degenerative eye disease, damage is caused to the macula, the part of the retina which produces clear vision in the central visual field. The disease causes a blurring of central vision, but typically leaves peripheral vision intact.

Vision loss due to age-related macular degeneration usually comes on gradually and painlessly over time but on occasion vision loss can drastically appear seemingly overnight. Early signs of vision loss from AMD include shadowy areas in your central vision or unusually distorted sight. While AMD doesn’t have a cure yet, early detection and treatment is known to stop advancement of the disease and therefore prevent vision impairment. For those who have already lost acuity, low-vision rehabilitation and aids can help.

Those at higher risk of AMD include senior citizens, females, Caucasians and individuals with light eyes, severe hyperopia (farsightedness) or a genetic disposition. Risk factors that can be minimized include smoking, hypertension, exposure to UV light and being overweight. Proper exercise and nutrition including certain nutrients can reduce your risk.

Those who are living with low vision should speak to their optometrist about low vision training and special equipment that can facilitate a return to daily activities. After an extensive eye exam, a low vision expert can prescribe helpful low vision devices such as reading telescopes and non-optical adaptive devices such as special light fixtures and signatureguides.

While AMD is more common in seniors, it can affect anyone and therefore it is wise for every individual to schedule a yearly eye exam to determine eye health and discuss ways to prevent this and other serious eye diseases.