Macular degeneration is not inherited. While there are probably heritable risk factors for developing the disease, the actual cause is not known. Having a sibling with macular degeneration, does not mean that you will follow the same fate. An example that I use often is the development of skin cancer. “Fair” individuals have less pigment in their skin to protect them from the sun’s harmful rays and, thus, they have a higher chance of developing skin cancer. Being “fair” is inherited, developing skin cancer is not.
Macular degeneration is a so-called “waste-basket” term. It refers to a collection of diseases that look and behave the same way. They all effect central vision causing blurriness and waviness in the vision. Typical macular degeneration is divided into the “wet” and “dry” forms is usually seen in people of northern European descent, may be associated with blue eye color, farsightedness and smoking. It is not inherited. It affects the macula (central portion of the retina) and gives it a characteristic appearance. It usually is not diagnosed until after the age of 55.
There are inherited macular dystrohies that also affect central vision and occur at a much younger age. These are often clumped into “macular degenerations” and cause some confusion with its more common counterpart. Macular dystrophies include Stargardt’s macular dystrophy and also fundus flavimaculatus (may be the same disease).
If there are family members that have been diagnosed with macular degeneration and you are worried, the best recommendation is to get a dilated eye exam. Macular degeneration has a characteristic appearance and does not develop quickly. Your doctor should be able to diagnose you easily or, if unable, should refer you to a retina specialist. Feel free to email me or comment if you can not find a suitable doctor.
Randall V. Wong, M.D.
Ophthalmologist, Retina Specialist