Actor Henry Winkler is seen here at an event.Share on Pinterest
Actor Henry Winkler is trying to raise awareness of age-related macular degeneration. Leon Bennett/WireImage/Getty Images
  • Actor Henry Winkler is talking about the toll that age-related macular degeneration can take on mental and physical health.
  • Age-related macular degeneration affects 20 million Americans over the age of 40.
  • There is no cure for the condition.

Henry Winkler has been a mainstay on our TV screens for years: first as The Fonz on “Happy Days” and, more recently, on shows such as “Barry”and “Arrested Development.” But when he’s not on set, Henry is a family man — and it was through his late father-in-law that he and his wife first learned about age-related macular degeneration.

Age-related macular degeneration is an eye condition that involves the deterioration of the retina. It’s thought the disease affects almost 20 million Americans over the age of 40 (around 13% of the population).

In its earlier stages, age-related macular degeneration causes central vision loss — what you see when looking straight ahead. Left unchecked, it can develop into geographic atrophy, which is irreversible and can lead to blindness.

Official age-related macular degeneration and geographic atrophy diagnoses are made by ophthalmologists or optometrists (rather than opticians). If you’re concerned about any changes in your vision, it’s vital to speak with a professional sooner rather than later.

While a significant number of people will someday experience age-related macular degeneration and geographic atrophy, many do not know they are at risk.

We talked to Winkler about why he has partnered with Apellis Pharmaceuticals on their new campaign — GA Won’t Wait — to help spread the word about this eye disease and why early treatment is so important.

You’ve previously spoken about being treated for glaucoma. Did that make you more aware about the importance of looking after your eyes?

Henry: Without a doubt. When I had my eyes checked and took care of whatever was plaguing my eye, I was so grateful. The gratitude that washes over you, because you decided to take care of yourself, is an amazing feeling. 

Dame Judi Dench recently spoke about potentially retiring from acting as she’s having trouble reading scripts. Your career also relies on script reading — is this possibility something you think or worry about?

I’m very lucky. It feels like I am just filled with wonderful experiences at this moment: “Barry,” a children’s book, my memoir, and this campaign, which I think is vital. I’m having the most wonderful time. But I know it could change in a minute. I’m not thinking of retiring — I have the energy and I have my health, thank goodness — and I’d like to keep it that way.

Can you tell us a bit about your partnership with Apellis and their new campaign?

I’m thrilled to be a part of this incredible campaign; I have to say it was fortuitous. One of the gifts that came along with my marriage was my father-in-law, Ed. I really loved him. Through the years, we all noticed his vision starting to change, and it turned out he had [age-related macular degeneration.] The transition that I saw in him — just in his being — I thought, “Oh my gosh. This is an amazing wake up [call] to make sure you get your eyes checked.” I’ve seen the devastation: the fact he had to ask if his son still had a beard. He couldn’t recognize his grandchildren. He had to close down his dental practice sooner than he wanted to.

Was age-related macular degeneration something you or your father-in-law were aware of before he was diagnosed?

No, I was not aware at all. I became very aware, and very educated, very quickly.

Did Ed’s age-related macular degeneration develop into geographic atrophy?

We didn’t know about geographic atrophy at that time so I would be a liar if I said, “Yes, it did.” What I know now is that it can develop and it’s irreversible. It’s devastating. And that’s why the sooner you start taking care and going to your eye doctor, the more opportunities you have to keep your eyesight for as long as possible.

You saw how age-related macular degeneration affected Ed’s career and his everyday life. Would you say his condition impacted you and your family, too?

Absolutely. Everybody is affected. You had to help him out, but in a way that made it seem like you weren’t. In my house, there’s the kitchen and then two steps down into the family room where we have dinner. I would watch him very carefully feel his way to the edge of the step. As soon as I saw that journey start, I’d grab his arm, we’d laugh, and I’d help him with the steps. You make it part of an experience instead of, “Oh, poor you.”

Are you able to highlight some of the main signs of age-related macular degeneration and geographic atrophy?

Yes — well, what I know. Straight lines become wavy. You’re looking at another person and there is a piece missing — there is a hole in what you’re looking at; you don’t see the entire picture in front of you. [But there’s also] the wearing away of your well-being: your sense of self, of your pride, and becoming dependent on somebody else. It really takes a toll.

Do you take any steps to monitor or protect your eye health on a daily basis?

No, I don’t do anything on a daily basis. But I am very aware if something is going on. For instance, I need good light now in order to read smaller print, and I want to make sure that’s all I need. Every once in a while it smacks you in the face: “Oh! This is a little different.” And then I call Uday [Dr. Uday Devgan, an LA-based eye doctor]. My eye doctor is one of my idols. He was born to take care of and understand the eye.

Do you have to wear glasses or anything similar?

I sometimes wear glasses, when I’m driving at night or reading small print. Although it all depends on my wife and my daughter as to whether I keep the frame or not! If they say, “That frame looks great on you,” then I’m in. But if they say, “Are you sure about those?” I go right back to the store.

As we get older, we become more aware of age-related health concerns, like dementia and heart disease, and maybe have discussions about them. Do you hear your friends discussing age-related macular degeneration or does more awareness need to be raised?

Exactly what you said. More awareness needs to be raised. I find that human beings are embarrassed. They are embarrassed to mention that something is going awry. They’re afraid they’ll be perceived differently. They’re afraid that, in the workplace, people will think, “Maybe we need to rethink their position.” People are embarrassed to admit their humanness. But we cannot stop moving forward.

Is there one message you’d like to share with Healthline readers — whatever their age may be — about eye health?

Go and have your eyes checked. If you’re worried, visit there’s a myriad of resources on that website that will calm you, help you, and lead you in the right direction.