Macular Degeneration and Low Vision Awareness Month

AMD awareness mth

February is Macular Degeneration/Low Vision Awareness Month. Being a vision scientist, specializing in low vision, you would think I’d have been aware of this. Nope. Shame. Most of the planet knows that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but very few have any idea that this month is Macular Degeneration (AMD)/Low Vision Awareness Month. There are more cases of AMD than there are of breast cancer. In fact, the number of people living with AMD is similar to the number of people diagnosed with all types of invasive cancers. I know, I know, AMD is not fatal, but it is the leading cause of irreversible blindness in older adults. It affects the independence, mobility and quality of life of those that have it. That should make it worth noting.

AMD is a multifunctional disease, meaning it’s caused by a lot of things. Age is the biggest factor. Some ophthalmologists start looking for signs in those as young at 50. Genetics also play a role. If you’ve had a family history of AMD, that puts you at higher risk. In terms of ethnicity, Caucasians have the highest risk. Scientist believe this has something to do with a lack of melanin. Your lifestyle can have an impact on your risk of developing AMD too. Obviously, smoking is bad for you, but it affects your eyes too. Smokers are three times more likely to develop AMD. Since inflammation has been shown to contribute to AMD, keeping your blood pressure and cholesterol levels low can be helpful. Probably the simplest thing you can do to reduce your risk is to wear your sunglasses. UV light wreaks havoc on your skin, imagine what it can do to your eyes when it is directly absorbed by the delicate photoreceptor on your retina.

There are two forms of AMD; dry and wet. The dry form is the most common, affecting about 90% of people who develop the disease. The central retina starts to deteriorate causing blind spots to develop or vision to be come blurry. Dry AMD progresses slowly, but can turn into the wet form at any time.

Wet AMD occurs more suddenly and progresses more rapidly than the dry form. It is referred to as “wet” due to the abnormal growth of blood vessels under the retina. These vessels tend to be leaky, releasing blood and fluid into the retina. The bleed is often noticed by patients when something they know is straight (a lamp post or slats on a blind) appears distorted or wiggly.

To date, the only treatment for dry AMD is preventative. The Age-related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) recommends taking a daily mixture of vitamins and minerals called Vitalux® to prevent and/or slow down the progression of the disease. Other preventative measures included lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, keeping weight healthy, maintaining a normal blood pressure and wearing UV-blocking sunglasses.

There are more treatments available for wet AMD, but they are by no means a cure. The most common treatment today is called anti-VEGF. It is a recombinant antibody that is injected directly into the eye (if a needle in your eye isn’t enough to get you to wear your sunglasses, I don’t know what is!) Anti-VEGF’s purpose is to prevent the growth of those abnormal blood vessels. This treatment usually clears whatever fluid is present out of the retina, preventing it from doing further damage. Lost vision is rarely improved however, and the problem is likely to recur.

AMD takes away your central vision. Central vision is functional vision. It allows you to see fine details, colour, contrast and depth. Loss of central vision allows affects how steady you can hold your gaze. When you are fixing your eyes on something, they aren’t completely still. They drift and have tremors that are small enough for you not to notice, but when you lose central vision these movements become larger in magnitude, making maintaining a steady gaze difficult.

One of the biggest complaints the people I work with have is not being able to read anymore. No, enough magnification is not going to fix the problem. In AMD, the retina deteriorates to the point of scaring. No amount of magnification is going to help see through that scar. Another big complaint is inability to recognize faces. One man told me he wished he could tell his grandsons apart. He said they all have brown hair and sound pretty much the same, the only way he can tell who is who is by their heights. If they are seated or aren’t next to each other, it’s impossible.

Other folks are upset about their driver’s license being taken away or not being able to play cards on Sundays anymore. The worst cases are those that have become depressed. Growing older is not easy and it has its own stigma attached. Losing your vision on top of that, something you have depended on your entire life to get around, to socialize, to be independent, makes it that much harder. Not everyone adapts well.

There are organizations that can help those who have low vision adapt. The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) is one of those organizations. People with AMD don’t go completely blind, some peripheral vision remains and they can be taught how to best use that remaining vision. Places like the CNIB have devices and techniques that can help those affected adapt to their vision loss. Certified low vision therapists can even make house calls to adapt a client’s home to meet their needs. According to some local research, 33% of people diagnosed with AMD have no idea rehabilitation agencies exist and 13% know of their existence, but decide not to try it.

My Gran had AMD and she joined the CNIB. Gran could no longer read, so they would send her several audio books every month. She would listen to them while playing solitaire using a special deck for people with low vision. Gran was a pro at cryptic crosswords too. For a long time, she wasn’t able to do them. She was thrilled when the CNIB gave her a device that allowed her to do them again. They came to her apartment, taught her some tricks and set up the place so she was still able to cook, clean and wear clothes that matched. Gran lived with AMD for 15 years. Thanks in part to the CNIB, she stayed busy, happy and independent right up until the week she died.

I could go on forever about AMD and low vision but, I’m afraid I would lose you, so I’ll stop here. Take care of your eyes and educate yourself. Tell your relatives, tell your friends. AMD is caused by many factors. Some, like aging, genetics and ethnicity, are out of your control, but others, you can control. Stay healthy, get regular dilated eye exams and for Pete’s sake wear your sunglasses!


Drama Queen

August 3rd 2000 was a day I’ll never forget. The night before had been a sleepless night. How could I sleep knowing that I was going under the knife the next day?! A lot depended on this surgery; my self-confidence, my vision and possibly my ability to drive. You may call me a drama queen, but to a 15 years old, this was a really big deal!

I was born with strabismus, a defect which caused my eyes to turn inward, essentially crossed eyes. It caused me a lot of grief. I remember one girl telling the other kids to stay away from me because it was contagious. Kids can be cruel…and ignorant for that matter. I’m sure you’ve seen at least one person with this. If not, look up photos of Kristen Bell and Ryan Gosling. Didn’t know they had a lazy eye, did you? Maybe if they had been famous back then I wouldn’t have let my eyes bother me so much.


I arrived at the day surgery unit of the hospital early in the morning. Right away, they forced me in to the traditional hospital wear…the dreaded paper napkin gown. They also gave me slippers. The slippers were like shower caps, but for your feet. I felt as stupid as I looked. On top of that, they spelled my name wrong on my hospital bracelet, bravo!

I didn’t have to wait in the waiting room very long. The person scheduled for surgery ahead of me forgot to not eat, so my surgery got bumped up. My heart stopped and my legs felt like jello as I rose from my seat to follow the orderly. He sat me in another waiting room full of strangers hooked up to IVs and various machines. That was where I worried myself sick, literally. I sat there for what seemed like an eternity wondering all sorts of things. Would they get it right? Would I wake up on the operating table? Would I go blind? Would I wake up at all? Just when I thought I was about to throw up and my heart was going to explode, my surgeon walked in with his army of doctors to announce that they were ready for me.

They led me into a room that was the sickening colour of sour milk. I was told to lie on the bed in the center of the room. It was cold and hard, they had dug my grave already! They put the gas mask over my face and told me to count backwards from 10. I don’t remember much after 9.

When I awoke, the room was spinning. Not that I could see it, I couldn’t open my eyes, but that didn’t lessen the spinning sensation. The pain in my eyes was pretty bad. The stitches they had sewn into my eye balls poked me with every blink. At least the worse was over though, or so I thought….

I couldn’t open my eyes, so the nurses guided me to a waiting room where my parents were waiting for me. I had to stay there until the anesthesia wore off. A nurse offered me Gravol to help with the nausea. Have you had Gravol before? It’s chewable, tastes like orange and always seems to magically take my nausea away. So of course I said yes when offered. It wasn’t what I was expecting. Before I had a chance to figure out what was going on, the nurse jammed a needle into my hip. Ouch! Thanks for the warning!

However traumatic it was at the time, I’m glad I did it. It improved my vision and did not affect me getting my driver’s license. It also did wonders for my self-confidence. I actually felt pretty once and a while.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Follow Somber Scribbler on


%d bloggers like this: