Both macular degeneration and glaucoma can lead to vision loss and blindness. But they have different causes and treatments.

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and glaucoma are two of the most common types of vision loss to occur with age. However, each has unique causes, symptoms, and treatment approaches.

Macular degeneration results from a wearing down of the eye’s macula, which is near the center of the retina. AMD has two types — wet and dry — and causes central vision loss over time, which can result in blindness.

Glaucoma occurs due to damage to the optic nerve, often due to pressure in the eye. It often begins as peripheral vision loss, and can also lead to blindness.

This article will explore the differences between macular degeneration and glaucoma, what to expect if you have either of these conditions, and how they can be treated or prevented.

Key statistics

Vision loss affects many people in the United States, especially older adults:

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Age can naturally cause a lot of changes in your eyes. But while it’s not unusual for your vision to change over time, some health conditions can threaten your vision’s overall health, and even cause blindness if untreated.

Macular degeneration causes

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) can develop as your macula changes over time. The macula is a part of the retina, which is tissue at the back of your eye. It controls the sharpness of your central vision, allowing us to accurately see shapes and details.

There are two types of age-related macular degeneration: dry and wet.

Dry macular degeneration occurs as the macula thins due to natural wear and tear as we age.

Wet macular degeneration happens when abnormal blood vessels leak fluid into the macula. This can be caused by a buildup of drusen, or lumps of fatty proteins called lipids, under the macula. This creates bleeding and scarring.

Many people develop drusen in their eyes with age. Most drusen don’t cause serious vision problems. However, having large, central drusen is a risk factor for AMD.

Glaucoma causes

Glaucoma can also develop with age, but there are many different types. However, open-angle glaucoma is the most common.

Although experts aren’t really sure why glaucoma develops in the first place, what’s clear is the fact that damage occurs from a buildup of pressure within the eye.

Sometimes this pressure happens because your eye doesn’t drain its natural fluid properly, and in other cases, it could be related to other health conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes.

Over time, this high pressure within your eye affects the optic nerve, disrupting signals about the things you’re seeing between your eye and your brain.

There are cases of glaucoma that develop even if eye pressure is normal.

Vision loss happens with both macular degeneration and glaucoma, but the specific type of vision loss, and the symptoms, are different.

Macular degeneration symptoms

Macular degeneration symptoms are usually divided into three stages:

  • Early AMD: It usually has no symptoms.
  • Intermediate AMD: This might not appear with noticeable symptoms either, but people who do have them notice things like mild blurred vision and difficulty seeing in low light.
  • Late AMD: This is the most severe stage. The things you see can appear crooked or wavy, and you may lose sight in the center of your visual field. You may even see blank spots at the center of your eye. Peripheral vision is often more clear in people with AMD.

AMD can be detected with tests at your ophthalmologist’s office, often with a simple dilated eye exam. Tests called optical coherence tomography and fluorescein angiography are also used to provide a more detailed look. Your doctor may use a tool called the Amsler grid, which can identify vision changes due to later stage AMD.

It’s important to attend regular eye checkups to help screen for eye conditions like AMD and glaucoma, especially since you may not notice symptoms until too late.

Glaucoma symptoms

Glaucoma symptoms vary depending on the type. In general, while you may not notice changes in the beginning, you’ll likely begin to lose peripheral vision (sight around the edges of your eye). This could feel like tunnel vision, or patches of vision loss.

In severe cases, the loss of peripheral vision may eventually lead to blindness.

Acute-angle glaucoma is different than the primary form, and is a medical emergency. Acute-angle glaucoma can cause sudden symptoms including headaches, severe eye pain, and nausea.

Regular eye examinations to track gradual changes in your vision are an important step in the treatment process. While exams might not seem like a treatment, they’re crucial to identifying problems early on, which can sometimes help slow or stop the progression of your vision loss.

A peripheral visual field test, which is usually part of a routine eye exam, is an important tool doctors use to detect vision changes due to possible glaucoma or other conditions.

Macular degeneration treatment

Treatment for AMD depends on the type.

Dry AMD is the most common but least treatable form. Vision loss due to dry AMD is permanent, but can be managed with healthy lifestyle and low vision aids. Taking certain nutritional supplements has been found to slow the progression of dry AMD in some people.

Vision loss due to wet AMD can be slowed and sometimes partially reversed with injectable anti-VEGF drugs and laser therapies.

Glaucoma treatment

Medicated eye drops that help decrease eye pressure are usually the first-line treatment for glaucoma, if still in the early stages. While treatment can’t reverse existing damage, it can help prevent further damage and vision loss.

Laser treatments may also be used to drain fluid from your eye and similarly help lower eye pressure. In severe cases, a surgery called a trabeculectomy may be necessary to remove fluid and relieve pressure buildup.

The focus of these treatments is to alleviate the pressure in your eye and prevent further damage to the optic nerve, but different types of glaucoma cause this pressure to build in different ways. Talk with your doctor about the right treatments for your specific type of glaucoma.

Always let your doctor know about any medications you take, any previous eye procedures, and any other chronic health conditions. This information helps your care team evaluate the best, and safest, treatment option for you.

While age is the biggest risk factor for both AMD and glaucoma, researchers have identified others.

Macular degeneration risk factors

The top risk factors for macular degeneration include:

  • being age 55 and older
  • being a white person
  • smoking cigarettes
  • having a family history of AMD
  • having obesity

Glaucoma risk factors

Top risk factors for developing glaucoma include:

  • being over age 60
  • being Hispanic, Latino, or Black
  • having a family history of glaucoma

For both AMD and glaucoma, there are many risk factors you can’t control, and it’s not possible to fully prevent either condition. However, there are steps you can take to improve your overall eye health.

These include:

  • ceasing smoking, if you smoke
  • attending routine eye exams
  • getting enough physical activity on a regular basis
  • eating a balanced diet
  • maintaining stable blood pressure

Glaucoma and macular degeneration are both common eye conditions that can develop with age in some people. Both conditions can lead to vision change and loss.

In the early stages of these conditions, there are often no symptoms. As glaucoma progresses, it will cause loss of peripheral vision, while AMD affects central vision first. Severe cases of either condition can cause blindness.

Vision loss due to dry AMD is permanent, while wet AMD can be slowed and sometimes reversed with medications and laser therapy. Glaucoma is usually treated with eye drops or surgery to relieve pressure on the optic nerve.

Talk with your doctor about your family history and other risk factors for both AMD and glaucoma. Prioritize yearly eye exams, especially once you turn 40, to catch any troubling signs of a chronic eye condition before they affect your vision.