Age-related macular degeneration gradually destroys the sharp central vision you need for seeing objects clearly.
Age-related macular degeneration is a baby-boomer disease that, according to the American Medical Association, affects more than 10 million Americans. It is one of the leading causes of blindness for people over age 65. A study published in the July 2007 issue of Archives of Ophthalmology found that current smokers are four times more likely to develop this eye problem than nonsmokers.
What does the study say?
Dr. Sanjay Gupta, chief medical correspondent: We're talking about a disease called age-related macular degeneration. The biggest risk factor for it is simply getting older. It usually hits after age 50, and, by the time you're 75, about 15 percent of all people have it. Smoking is also a known risk factor. But this research found the risk for getting late age-related macular degeneration is four times greater if you smoke.
Age-related macular degeneration affects your eyes, and gradually destroys your sharp central vision you need for seeing objects clearly for things like reading, driving, and even recognizing faces. The macula is the center of the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye. The retina relays images through the optic nerve to the brain. When the macula breaks down, things start to look blurred.
The mechanism for why smoking may increase the risk to your eyesight isn't clear yet. We know smoking increases your risk for many diseases. For example, smokers are twice as likely to die from heart attacks as are nonsmokers, according to the American Cancer Society. But the clear takeaway message here is: If you smoke, quit and get regular eye exams.
What if you used to smoke but you quit?
In this study, past smokers were three times as likely to have late age-related macular degeneration as those who had never smoked, compared with four times greater for current smokers. So, former smokers still have higher risk, but it's slightly lessened. But obviously, there are all kinds of other health benefits if you quit smoking. According to the American Cancer Society, people who quit before age 50 cut their risk of dying in the next 15 years in half compared with those who continue to smoke.
Can age-related macular degeneration be treated or cured?
There's no cure for it, but therapies can slow vision loss. It's important to get regular eye exams. An eye exam can detect macular degeneration before the disease causes vision loss. The American Medical Association recommends a screening eye exam, including detailed exam of the retina, for all people age 40 and over. And if your doctor discovers age-related macular degeneration, it's important to have frequent eye exams.
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