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When the eyes dont have it
Macular degeneration sneaks up on an aging population
MARYSVILLE Aging happens. It starts when were conceived. The longer it goes on, the more time there is for things to go wrong.
Hair thins, muscles and memory weaken, and hearing gets harder. Sight also dims but, for many people, sight problems arent necessarily associated with aging and corrective measures like glasses, contacts even corrective surgery are common and effective. Vision problems usually dont have to be another source of frustration as people age. But there are exceptions.
Age-related macular degeneration is one of those exceptions. Once it starts its course there are no corrective actions that can be taken, no lenses, no contacts, no surgery. Eventually people with AMD lose the ability to see the world around them clearly, if at all. A leading eye research center, Waterford Institute of Technology, says AMD is the leading cause of blindness in the western world.
AMD most often results in vision that is unable to provide sharp images, even with corrective lenses. There are places in the field of vision that are relatively clear and other places that never come into focus. The disease causes a progressive loss of central vision and affects the ability to drive, read, or even watch television.
AMD attacks the macula, tissue inside the eyeball that includes light receptors and nerve endings that are the first step in human vision. Once macula is gone it cannot be regenerated. Light sent to that area by the eyes lens never gets interpreted as an image by the brain.
An estimated 30 million people worldwide are losing macula and will eventually lose eyesight. This number is up, say experts, because we have more people who live past the age of 70.
Dr. Kim Kron, an ophthalmologist who owns Marysville Vision Clinic, said he has seen an increase in his senior patients who complain of the kind of vision loss tied to macular degeneration. There was nothing we could really do about it until very recently, he said.
Research conducted by Waterford took treatment of the disease in a lateral direction from normal treatment procedures. Instead of stronger glasses or grinding lenses to try to correct the blurry spots, the Waterford research focused on detection of weakened protective pigment in the macula and prevention or slowing of further macular degeneration.
One result of the research was the development of a device, called a MacuScope that measures levels of the pigment. The machines arent cheap at $15,000 a whack, but they are painless, fast and provide the most accurate measure possible to date according to Dr. Kron. The MacuScope delivers a harmless light beam that can measure the degeneration of the eye tissue with preciseness, then spits out a tape reminiscent of the one you get from an automated gas pump. Kron said he is the first in the area to have the diagnostic machine. He felt it was necessary because so many of his patients are in the senior category.
If the measurements fall within a measured range I want to start people on a regimen of lutein, zeaxanthin, or meso-zeaxanthin said Kron. Right now it is the best thing we have to slow the rate of degeneration.
Dr. Kron is referring to dietary supplements that serve to shore up macular pigment. Stephen Beatty, consultant ophthalmic surgeon at Waterford Regional Hospital and Dr. John Nolan, assistant director of the Macular Pigment Research Group at Waterford Institute of Technology associate the first two compounds with a diet of fruits and vegetables. Meso-Z, shorthand for the third compound, is only found in the macula itself.
We dont have anything at the moment that will restore that tissue and I frankly dont think we will for a hundred or so years, said Kron. The tissue is just too complex for one thing. But if a patient follows the LIPO dosage [lutein, zeaxanthin, meso-zeaxanthin in various combinations] they have a very high chance of retaining their eyesight at whatever their level of normal decline might be. In some cases that is zero.
For many in the aging population, the diagnosis and treatment of age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, offers an alternative to steadily eroding vision and decreased independence.