Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School


What Is It?

Macular degeneration is a common cause of blindness and vision problems among older people. Macular degeneration is also called age-related macular degeneration, or AMD.

AMD damages the macula. The macula is a part of the eye that is responsible for seeing sharp details directly in the center of the field of vision. Damage caused by AMD can interfere with:

  • The ability to see straight ahead. This is necessary for driving and viewing distances, such as when recognizing faces or watching television.

  • Fine, detailed vision. This is necessary for reading newsprint, sewing, working with crafts and making repairs.

Most people with AMD have fluffy, yellow-white spots on the macula. These spots are called drusen. Not everyone who gets AMD has these spots.

There are two forms of AMD:

  • Dry AMD: The vast majority of people who lose significant vision from AMD have dry AMD. In dry AMD, the cells of the macula slowly break down. This produces blurring then blank spots in the eye's central vision. The symptoms are subtle at first then become more noticeable over time.

  • Wet AMD: In wet AMD, delicate new blood vessels begin to grow beneath the retina. They leak blood and fluid into the macula, causing scarring. Wet AMD can cause rapid loss of vision over days to weeks and continued loss of vision over time. Wet AMD is much less common than the dry form. But it generally progresses much more rapidly and is therefore more serious.

Age is the most important risk factor for AMD. Cigarette smoking and cardiovascular risk factors, such as high cholesterol levels, may also increase risk.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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