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7 Macular Degeneration Risk Factors You Can Control—and 4 You Can’t

Your chances of getting this top cause of vision loss in people age 60 and older—depends on both your genetics and your lifestyle.

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Handsome male doctor ophthalmologist is checking the eye vision of attractive young woman in modern clinic. Doctor and patient in ophthalmology clinic.4 PM production/Shutterstock

What is macular degeneration?

It’s one of the top cause of blindness in American’s over the age of 60, reports the National Institutes of Health; 10 million people in the United States. have this condition. The macula is the name for the center of your eye’s retina, and it’s responsible for your central vision—it’s the reason you’re able to read, drive, recognize faces, and discern fine details, according to the American Macular Degeneration Foundation. When the macula breaks down—degenerates—your central vision goes, and blindness results.

The disease is often referred to as age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, because it largely occurs in people age 50 and older, though it can strike earlier. In fact, one form of macular degeneration, Stargardt disease, afflicts young people—though it is very rare. If you want to protect your eyes throughout your life, these 13 vision boosters can help.

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Wet and dry AMD

There are two main types of AMD: dry and wet. Dry AMD is a slow, progressive version that’s the most common type—it accounts for up to 90 percent of cases. “Dry AMD is essentially comparable to wear and tear of the skin—skin thinning and wrinkling with age,” says ophthalmologist Winfried Amoaku, MD, of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists. Wet AMD is rare, develops quickly, and is more severe; abnormal blood vessels grow behind the macula, obscuring vision.

Currently, there are no proven treatments for dry AMD. For the wet version, doctors use laser treatments and intraocular injections. But there are also ways to lower your risk of ever developing AMD: “The good news is, there are things you can do to protect yourself from this potentially devastating eye disease,” says Dianna Seldomridge, MD, MBA, clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. The following are things you can and can’t control about AMD.

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You can’t control getting older

With every year that passes, your risk of developing macular degeneration increases: “As populations age, AMD becomes more common,” says Dr. Amoaku. Your risk jumps dramatically after age 50, though younger people are at risk, too. It’s important to form good health habits; here are 22 habits that are making you age faster in every way.

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You can’t control your genes

“An individual’s genetic make-up can either predispose to or protect against AMD,” says Dr. Amoaku. If you have a close relative with AMD, you have a 50 percent greater chance of developing the condition, reports the American Academy of Ophthalmology. At last count, researchers have identified nearly 20 genes that can affect the risk of developing AMD. Dr. Seldomridge recommends you research your family’s eye health before your next office visit. “You may need more frequent eye exams based on your family history,” she says.

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You can’t control your ethnicity

AMD is also more common among Caucasians than among African-Americans or Hispanics/Latinos, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Wet AMD is more common in Asian populations than white ones, whereas dry AMD is more frequent in white people. If you fall into one of these groups, the experts encourage you to be even more diligent about eye exams.

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You can’t control your gender

Women are at higher risk of developing AMD: About two-thirds of cases occur in women. One theory for a woman’s increased risk may simply be that they tend to live longer than men. No matter your gender, you’ll be interested to know these 13 secrets your eye doctor won’t tell you.

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You can control how often you see an ophthalmologist

In its beginning stages of development, AMD can be hard to notice. That’s why regular visits to the eye doctor are crucial throughout your life. “Every person should have their eyes tested and examined by an optician at least once every two years,” says Dr. Amoaku. “Individuals can be taught to look for distortion of central vision, and they’re advised to seek help immediately when this occurs.” He says that routine checks can help prevent the gradual progression of dry AMD. And you may want to make your appointments earlier rather than later in the day; this is why you have tired eyes after a long workday.

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You can control your diet

A healthy diet is good for every aspect of your wellbeing, and that includes your eyesight. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends eating an abundance of dark green leafy vegetables, fresh fruit, and omega-3-rich foods like salmon, nuts, and seeds to keep your macula healthy. At the same time, limit your intake of other fats and oils, and watch your alcohol intake. Some studies suggest obesity can more than double your risk of AMD.

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You can control your fitness

Along with nutrition, exercise also protects you from AMD, research shows, especially if you have a family history of the disease. In fact, one study found that subjects who participated in just 10 hours of light exercise a week—including housework or taking a walk—were four times less likely to develop the disease. If you already have an active lifestyle, keep it up. Some research suggests that regularly working out at least three days a week can lower your risk of wet AMD by 70 percent; other studies indicate that physical activity may lower the odds of early AMD, too, says Dr. Seldomridge. And all that exercise will protect your brain, too—here’s how.

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You can control your blood pressure

“High blood pressure can predispose you to AMD due to its effect on the blood vessels at the back of the eye,” says Dr. Amoaku. The compromised blood flow caused by high blood pressure decreases the amount of oxygen getting to your eyes, and that can damage your macula. Regular exercise and cutting back on sodium, alcohol, and caffeine are some natural ways to control blood pressure; depending on how high your blood pressure reading is, you may need prescription medication, as well. These 23 foods can lower your blood pressure naturally.

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You can control your cholesterol

Like blood pressure, your cholesterol levels have a direct effect on your eye health. Studies done in mice suggest that cholesterol buildup in the arteries and veins can contribute to AMD. As you get older, cells in your eyes lose their ability to dispose of cholesterol deposits; this leads to inflammation and, in turn, the abnormal blood vessel growth that causes macular degeneration. Eating healthy, exercising, having your levels checked regularly, and medications, if needed, can help keep your cholesterol under control.

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You can control whether you smoke or not

The case against smoking is persuasive, but in case you still need convincing: The habit can also make you blind. “Smokers are twice as likely to develop macular degeneration compared with a nonsmoker,” says Dr. Seldomridge. “Numerous studies show smoking increases the risk of developing macular degeneration and the speed at which it progresses.” Here are 23 ways to kick the habit once and for all.

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You can control your vitamin intake

“If you already have AMD, vitamins can delay progression of advanced AMD and help people keep their vision longer if they have intermediate AMD or advanced AMD in only one eye,” says Dr. Seldomridge. The American Academy of Ophthalmologists recommends vitamins C and E, lutein, zeaxanthin, zinc, and copper as powerhouses against macular degeneration. But make sure it’s the right combination of vitamins. A recent study showed that some of the most popular brands of vitamins do not contain the right dosages for eye health. Consult with your doctor to find the right mix. This is the best time of day to take 11 common supplements.