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Eye Disease Strikes Elderly

People think that eyesight just naturally gets worse with age. What many people don't realize is that vision loss often is the result of a disease that strikes the elderly, reports CBS News Health Correspondent Dr. Emily Senay.

More than six million people in the United States over the age of 65 report having vision problems. Almost two million of them suffer from a disease called age-related macular degeneration, or AMD. One of them is 83-year-old Max Cole.

Max is legally blind in his left eye, and the vision in his right eye is slowly deteriorating.

"Now, in this one," he says, "Not all of the central vision is gone, so what I can read and see is a very dim and foggy vision."

In the beginning, the symptoms were subtle.

"When it first affected me it was reading," he says. "I found that maybe I need new glasses or something."

But like many people his age, Max's vision problems can't be fixed with normal eyeglasses. He has age-related macular degeneration in both eyes -- the wet and more severe form in the left eye and the dry form in the right eye.

AMD is caused by damage to the macula which is located in the center of the retina at the back of the eye and is responsible for the central part of your vision.

There is no cure or proven treatment for AMD. Some cases of wet AMD can be treated with laser surgery to stop the progression of the disease, and current studies are being done to look at the possibility of controlling the disease with diet, surgery and drugs.

While the disease can cause severe vision loss, patients with AMD do keep their peripheral vision, which Max says he and others with AMD are grateful to still have.

"We will probably never go totally blind and so I say, well, it's a bad thing, but on the other hand it could be worse," Max says. "I could be housebound."

With training from the organization Lighthouse International, Max makes sure that won't happen. He has learned to use vision aids such as magnifying glasses, large print controls and special markers to help him read, cook and watch television. He even has a computer program to read his email messages out loud.

"Some people say, 'Well gosh, Max, I didn't even know from your spirit and the way you walk that you had a problem'," he says. "I like to hear that."

Max has taken a proactive stance against his disease. He says that with the use of his vision aids, he has even been able to continue one of his loves: travel.

To detect the onset of AMD, eye care professionals may use drops to dilate your eyes so they can see the retina clearly. Early signs of yellow deposits known as drusen would signal to your doctor that you are at high risk for developing AMD.

The doctor may also have you look at an Amsler grid, which is an image that has a checkerboard pattern with a black dot in the middle. During the exm, the patient covers one eye and focuses on the black dot. A person with AMD sees wavy, not straight, lines. Sometimes, lines may be missing altogether.

AMD affects individuals in different ways. Blurriness and missing images are the most common symptoms, but they can occur in varying degrees.

Having AMD does not mean a person will go blind. Dry AMD develops very slowly, and there are vision aids that can help you adjust to the change, such as hand-held magnifying glasses with built-in lights or mini telescopes that can be mounted onto eye glasses for distance vision.

For more information on AMD, see the Web sites of the National Eye Institute and the American Macular Degeneration Foundation.

Reported By Dr. Emily Senay

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