It’s the leading cause of vision loss and blindness in Australia, but most people are still in the dark about the causes of macular degeneration and how to prevent it.

Parkridge South resident George Gardner was shocked to discover his blurry eyesight was not a result of old-age, but macular degeneration (MD). For several years Gardner had seen a gradual decline in the sight of his left eye, but put it down to getting older until he stumbled across a macular degeneration stall at a local exhibition three years ago. “That’s the vexing part of it, I probably wouldn’t have known for some years,” he says. “There must be hundreds, probably thousands, of people walking around out there that have no idea they have macular degeneration.”

Luckily Gardner is now able to prevent any more vision loss with nutrient supplements, but there are many others who are still in the dark, pointing out that Macular Degeneration Awareness Week has become a necessity. A Galaxy survey shows that Australians have poor knowledge of the disease and eye health in general. Almost 100 per cent of those interviewed incorrectly identified the important nutrients for eye health, and the majority of those aged 50 and over had no idea about what foods to eat to help reduce the risk of MD. “The only idea that I had was what all the elderly people of my time used to tell you – ‘eat more carrots’,” says Gardner.

This lack of awareness is a serious problem, according to Macular Degeneration Foundation CEO Julie Heraghty. She says MD is the leading cause of blindness and severe vision loss in Australia, but most people know little about it. “This is a disease which has only come to the forefront in the last 10 years. There was virtually no awareness about five years ago,” she says. “People think about arthritis and hearts and blood pressure, but they don’t think about the possibility of going blind.”

MD affects the macula, a small area in the centre of the retina at the back of the eye which controls central vision, and as waste products from the retina build up over time it begins to block or distort vision.

There are two types of MD – wet and dry. Dry MD is a slow form of the disease that can cause gradual loss of vision over several years, while wet MD can occur overnight and unexpectedly where the macula begins to bleed, “smudging” the retina and causing irregular vision. If wet MD is not treated within a week of onset, it becomes irreversible. People with MD in one or both eyes will experience distortion, dark patches or empty spaces, difficulty with colours and night driving and difficulty with reading, seeing faces and fine vision work.

There are also three risk factors that are associated with MD, according to Heraghty. People over 55 are most at risk, and family history also plays an important part. “If someone in your direct family has macular degeneration, you have a 50 per cent chance of developing it,” says Heraghty. Smoking is the only modifiable factor, and smokers are three to four times more likely than non-smokers to contract the disease.

Dr Lawrence Lee, retinal specialist in ophthalmology and associate ophthalmology professor at the University of Queensland, says although there is currently no cure for dry MD, there have been breakthroughs in the treatment for wet MD in recent years. For example, a drug called Avastin that helps manage the problem has been available since 2006. According to Dr Lee, a new longer-lasting drug, Eyelea, has shown positive results and is set to be released in six months.

Although there is no cure for dry MD, there are things people can do to help prevent further vision loss. Supplements of antioxidants and zinc are generally recommended for all MD sufferers. Heraghty also recommends eating a low GI diet and foods rich in lutein and zeaxanthin, including spinach, silver beet and turnip greens, plus corn and yellow capsicum. Omega-3 fatty acids are also important for good eye health, found in fish such as salmon, tuna and sardines, which should be part of the diet two to three times a week.

Keeping track of any vision changes is essential. The MD Foundation’s Amsler grid is a simple test to help determine any changes. Dr Lee also recommends people should see an optometrist every two years, but those aged over 55 should see one once a year to make sure no problems are developing.