A family member is diagnosed with macular degeneration and you wonder if you will develop the same eye disease. In most cases, macular degeneration is not inherited, but the risk factors probably are.
This is a common question and fear. The natural assumption is that this is a disease that “runs in the family.” Far from true. While there are a few macular dystrophies that are inherited, macular degeneration per se, is not.
We don’t really know the exact genetics of this retinal disease. A few genes have been identified to be associated with the disease. A few families have been studied. Overall, what we know as “macular degeneration” is probably a collection of diseases that develops given the right set of circumstances (i.e. given certain risk factors that are inherited, macular degeneration may be more likely to develop).
Patients at highest risk for the disease are usually of northern European ancestry and have blue eyes. There are weaker associations with female gender, poor nutrition and sun exposure. There is a very strong association with smoking and the development of the wet form of the disease.
The age of onset is also critical. The diagnosis of macular degeneration is usually not made until after age 55. Patients younger than 55 probably have another type of macular problem. Remember the macula is a specific place in the retina, hence, when used as an adjective, there are many “macular diseases.”
If you are worried that you may develop macular degeneration, get a dilated eye exam. Have your eye doctor examine you. If there is any question about the disease, see a retina specialist.
If you develop persistent changes in your vision, especially distortion, see your eye doctor.
Many times, if I have doubts about a disease, I’ll recommend a fluorescein angiogram. A fluorescein angiogram is a diagnostic test that involves injection of a dye into your arm. As the dye travels to your retina, pictures of the retina are obtained.
This is probably the best, and most sensitive, test for macular degeneration. It is basic tool of a retinal specialist.
What Does This Mean? If a family member contracts macular degeneration, it does NOT mean that you will get it, too. You probably share the same risk factors for developing the disease and, therefore, have a slightly higher risk of developing the disease.
Be proactive. Don’t wait for you develop symptoms. Get a thorough eye exam. The disease does not develop overnight and your eye doctor should be able to determine if you are risk for developing the disease.