Dry macular degeneration often progresses slowly over many years. Wet macular degeneration is less common but can cause symptoms within days.

Macular degeneration, also called age-related macular degeneration, is a condition that leads to the progressive breakdown of the central part of your retina called the macula.

Macular degeneration usually starts in people older than 50 years. For people with the most common type called dry macular degeneration, symptoms usually appear slowly over many years. A less common type called wet macular degeneration can cause symptoms that progress over days.

Here, we examine how fast macular degeneration advances and what factors influence its progression.

Your retinas are special layers of cells at the back of your eyes that convert light into electrical signals. The part of your retina responsible for your central vision is called your macula. The macula is about 5.5 millimeters (mm) (0.22 inches) across.

The rate of macular degeneration progression varies widely, with studies reporting progression rates anywhere from 0–14 square mm per year.

The most common form of the disease, dry macular degeneration, usually progresses slowly over years. Wet macular degeneration generally causes more rapid loss of vision. Loss of reading ability can occur in a few days.

In a 2020 study from the United Kingdom, researchers analyzed data from 40,543 people with a diagnosis of early or intermediate-stage macular degeneration from 2009 to 2016. They found that:

  • The annual rate of macular degeneration progressing to geographic atrophy (a feature of advanced macular degeneration) was 2.0 per 100 persons per year.
  • The annual rate of macular degeneration progressing to CNV (a feature of advanced wet macular degeneration) was 3.2 per 100 persons per year.

Macular degeneration differences between eyes

Macular degeneration can develop sooner in one eye than the other, but roughly two-thirds of people have the same stage of disease in both eyes.

A 2017 study, in which researchers analyzed the data from three other studies, found that of the 1,490 people with macular degeneration in one eye:

  • 19% to 28% of people develop macular degeneration in the other eye over 5 years
  • 27% to 68% of people with late macular degeneration in one eye developed macular degeneration in the other eye within 5 years

Learn more about at what age macular degeneration usually starts.

Do you always lose your sight with macular degeneration?

Macular degeneration doesn’t cause symptoms in the early stages and the rate of progression varies between people. Some people never have noticeable vision loss.

Do you completely lose your sight with macular degeneration?

Macular degeneration doesn’t lead to complete vision loss, but it can lead to a complete loss of central vision in its advanced stage.

Macular degeneration is divided in three stages.

Early stage

Early stage macular degeneration doesn’t cause symptoms, but an eye doctor will be able to see signs of the disease during a dilated eye exam.

Intermediate stage

You may or may not have symptoms in the intermediate stage of the disease. When symptoms do appear, they’re usually mild and include:

Advanced stage

In the advanced stage, you may develop symptoms like:

  • straight lines look wavy
  • blurry central vision
  • blank spots in your central vision
  • loss of night vision
  • colors seem less vibrant

Learn more about the stages of macular degeneration.

Macular degeneration is associated with the following risk factors:

  • increased age
  • female sex, associated with faster progression
  • certain genetic factors
  • Caucasian or Chinese ethnicity, compared with African or Hispanic
  • smoking tobacco
  • poor nutrition
  • higher body mass index (BMI)
  • eating a high glycemic diet
  • lower levels of physical activity

Many of these risk factors are out of your control or mostly out of your control. However, you may be able to slow the development of macular degeneration by:

  • adhering to a Mediterranean diet, which is linked to reduced risk of developing late stage macular degeneration
  • eating many fruits and vegetables
  • increasing your physical activity levels
  • wearing sunglasses to protect your retinas from ultraviolet light

Learn more about how to slow down macular degeneration.

Early macular degeneration is treated with regular monitoring of your disease with eye exams.

A special vitamin and mineral supplement called AREDS 2 may help slow the progression of your macular degeneration if your disease is at the intermediate stage.

Researchers are continuing to examine potential treatments for late stage dry macular degeneration. A new drug called pegcetacoplan was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2023, but its effectiveness is still being researched.

Treatment options for late stage wet macular degeneration include:

Here are some frequently asked questions people have about macular degeneration progression.

Can macular degeneration get worse quickly or cause sudden vision loss?

Wet macular degeneration tends to progress quicker than the dry form. It can cause a loss of reading ability within days.

How do I know if my macular degeneration is getting worse?

Macular degeneration causes progressive symptoms. As your disease progresses, you may notice that straight lines appear wavy or that colors look less vibrant.

How do people cope with macular degeneration?

An eye doctor can help you develop strategies to slow down the loss of your vision. You may be able to support your vision by using a magnifying glass for close-up activities, using bright lights, and wearing anti-glare sunglasses.

Is macular degeneration hereditary?

Genetics plays a strong role in determining if you’ll develop macular degeneration. Lifestyle habits like smoking tobacco, a poor diet, and not exercising can potentially increase your odds as well.

What’s the difference between dry and wet AMD?

Dry macular degeneration is more common and is characterized by thinning of your macula. Wet macular degeneration is less common, progresses quicker, but is easier to treat. It’s characterized by the growth of abnormal blood vessels in the back of the eye.

Dry macular degeneration progresses to wet in 10%–20% of cases.

Researchers are continuing to examine potential treatments for dry macular degeneration. The drug pegcetacoplan may help slow its progression. Wet macular degeneration can be treated with anti-VEG injection and photodynamic therapy.