Vision loss doubles with every decade

“We want to see people when their condition is at the preventable stage.’ Dr John McKenzie

Eating carrots will help you see in the dark – well, that’s what the Allies said in the United Kingdom to cover up the fact the military were using new radar in World War II.

Oddly, that old misinformation campaign has turned out to have a grain of truth to it. The beta-carotene in carrots may well help protect eyes from a distressingly common condition, macular degeneration.

However Dr John McKenzie, the chief ophthalmologist at Western Eye Specialists, says the most important thing is to have regular eye health check-ups, ‘‘so your eye health practitioner can refer you for care, as well as checking you for other threats such as cataracts and glaucoma’’.

This should be simple enough. Australians get new glasses every 2.7 years on average, and Medicare pays for a comprehensive investigation every two years, so your optometrist can combine the two.

McKenzie says eye conditions increase with age; one in seven people aged more than 50 will show early signs of macular degeneration.

‘‘The proportion of people suffering vision loss doubles with every decade they age,’’ he says. ‘‘Among people who get to 90, 25 per cent will have signs of macular degeneration and half of those will have some degree of vision loss.

‘‘We want to see people when their condition is at the preventable stage, rather than when treatment is no longer effective.’’

The macula is a small, specialised area at the centre of the light-sensitive retina. The macula is responsible for central, high resolution, colour vision.

If it becomes damaged, a blurry patch appears in the middle of everything you look at, not unlike ‘a hole in a doughnut’. Eventually, the hole can enlarge and people can see only at the edges of their field of vision.

Macular degeneration has two types, ‘dry’ and ‘wet’. Dry degeneration is more common but less severe. The macula slowly atrophies – hence its technical name ‘‘atrophic macular degeneration’’ – and causes a gradual loss of vision. There is no approved treatment as yet.

Just a small proportion of people with dry macular degeneration develop the wet type, but it can lead to sudden and significant loss of vision.

Dr John McKenzie, chief ophthalmologist at Western Eye Specialists, says eye conditions increase with age.

Technically known as ‘‘neovascular’’ macular degeneration, the wet type occurs when new blood vessels grow underneath the retina, causing bleeding and fluid leakage – the wetness – breaking down the retina’s delicate layers of tissue.

The good news is that wet macular degeneration can be treated with lasers and injections of medications to lessen the bleeding and leakage. McKenzie says ongoing pharmaceutical studies also appear promising.

‘‘We are now looking for drugs that last longer and can enter the eye without being injected,’’ he says. ‘‘These things would be very useful because the burden of treatment is significant for both the people who have it and for their carers.’’

In the meantime, healthy living is the way to go. Stop smoking, start exercising and always wear sunglasses. And eat a diet rich in nuts and grains, for zinc and selenium, as well as fresh fruit and vegetables for antioxidants. Yes, that includes carrots.

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