WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - We are always warned about taking care of our eyes. But as people age, their eyesight changes, many times because of cataracts or glaucoma.
But macular degeneration causes considerably more cases of blindness in people over 60 and will only create more problems at the population ages.
There is no cure for the disease, but a major break thru in eye research has been released with the hopes of being able to diagnose AMD in people, years before any symptoms occur. It could prevent the sight-robbing illness from affecting millions of people who don't know now what they may later in their life.
The disease affects the center part of the retina, the area that allows the eye to see fine details in your central vision. Nearly 13 million people have, or are at risk, of developing AMD, which affects everything from reading or driving a car to even being able to see a person's face.
In some cases, it progresses more rapidly and causes severe vision loss in just a few months, and nearly 80 percent of patients will have substantial, irreversible vision loss before any treatment begins.
For years, doctors have struggled to identify the disease because, as it progresses, central vision deteriorates and by the time that happens, it much harder to reverse the losses.
There is new technology on the market to help eye doctors identify the disease up to seven years before any symptoms are detected and be able to create a treatment plan for patients much earlier in the game.
Wilmington eye doctor Edward Paul has worked with AMD patients for years, trying to help them restore some of their vision. He says this new technology is a real game-changer because, as it turns out, the ability to adjust between light and dark conditions is a great early indicator of macular degeneration.
"We estimate that between 70 and 80 percent of people who have been diagnosed with macular degeneration have had it for a number of years before any symptoms appear. They go in thinking they need new glasses and find out they have AMD, or age-related macular degeneration, so just like with heart disease, the sooner we can diagnose the disease, the better we are at being able to prevent vision loss down the road," Paul explained.
Rachel Gaines received the good news of no evidence of AMD after taking the test, but she will be checked on a regular basis because risk factors include a family history of the disease, and knows firsthand how it affects a person's life.
"I lived with my mom and she was physically and mentally great, but she lost her eyesight because we did not have all of these advanced things that we do now, so it was almost too late for her when we started treatment," Gaines said.
"In the past, we have had very little we could do. Then we came out with dietary helpers we could use. Then we had the implantable telescope, telescopic eyeglasses, but this is the first proactive diagnostic test that allows us to actually attack the disease before any vision loss has happened," Paul said.
And while getting an early diagnosis is not a guarantee that patients will not be affected by AMD later in life, it is a major break thru which could lead to regular testing for all people and hopefully finding a cure for the disease that has already robbed many people of their eyesight.
Paul said the new technology is now being used in only three locations in North Carolina, but expects it to be a common diagnostic tool and test at most eye doctor's offices within the next five years.