Degenerating sight – Elderly eye illness can be dealt with; Stanford looking at chip |

Degenerating sight – Elderly eye illness can be dealt with; Stanford looking at chip

In 1960, Finley Harbour wondered why he was cleaning his glasses more often.

What he did not know was that at 41, he already was losing vision due to macular degeneration, an eye disease that is usually associated with the elderly.

“It’s a terrible disease,” Harbour, 86, said this week from his Nevada City home. He is legally blind in his left eye but has enough vision in the right to still drive. Harbour knows that if his right eye ever gets as bad as his left, his driving days are over.

“I can read all the books I want,” Harbour said, and he can still see well enough to cook. “Catching it early helps; you’re more careful with things, too, like sunlight.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, macular degeneration often shows up when a person needs more light for close work. The smaller type in newspapers gets harder to read, as do street signs.

As it advances, macular degeneration can cause the lines in a grid to appear crooked. It can also produce gray blind spots in the middle of the eye. It does not hamper peripheral vision, so total blindness does not occur.

But Harbour and others know that the disease can be bad enough to make people hard to recognize, for detail work to be virtually impossible, and for reading to become difficult.

The damage of macular degeneration cannot be cured, but it can be slowed if caught early. Laser surgery can slow what is called wet macular degeneration, a technique Harbour opted for on his left eye.

It stopped bleeding within his eye but also caused some damage. “You can see, but you can’t watch TV out of it,” Harbour said.

Dry macular degeneration is also subject to laser surgery and helps to ward off the wet variety. The Stanford School of Medicine is currently working on a microchip that would replace the retina’s function and offset the disease. However, that experiment is years away from completion and proof to the point where it could be used for humans.

Harbour and other sufferers take extra vitamin and mineral tablets to ward off the disease. Harbour’s include vitamins A, C, E, zinc and copper, antioxidants that battle retina tissue damage.

Doctors at the Mayo Clinic encourage sufferers to eat a balanced diet high in oxidants which means lots of fruits, vegetables and leafy greens. They also tell people to wear sunglasses to block out ultraviolet light .

Those who smoke are encouraged to immediately stop and people with existing conditions should stay with their regimens.

Regular eye exams can find macular degeneration early and stop the serious loss of vision.

The cause of macular degeneration is not known, but the Mayo Clinic thinks there are factors that may lead to it. Age is a major cause, with 60 percent of those over 60 with a severe vision loss suffering from the disease.

A history of macular degeneration in your family increases your chances of getting it and white people get it more often than people of color. Women get the disease more often than men and obesity increases the possibility.

Light-colored eyes are more prone to the disease and those with cardiovascular problems or who smoke are also more susceptible, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Support groups

Harbour was thinking of starting a support group for macular degeneration sufferers and then found out there is already one in Nevada County.

The Sierra Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired has support groups all week for all eye-disease patients in Nevada City. They also hold them every first and third Wednesday at Grace Lutheran Church.

“They’re very, very helpful to the clients,” said Carol McNally, who coordinates transportation for them. “We have about 400 clients, and they’re a wonderful group of people from all walks of life.”

All services at the center are free and they include transportation to doctors, training for living skills and Braille, counseling to fight depression, social gatherings, and referrals to resources and equipment. Anyone whose vision loss changes their lifestyle is eligible for the services.

Some who have received the services have managed to stay out of institutions and nursing homes, according to Sierra Services literature.

Harbour has joined the organization and is hoping for some benefits.

“I’m still agile, but if I lose my eyesight, I won’t be very happy,” he said.

What is macular degeneration?

An eye disease that attacks the tissue in the macula, which is part of the retina that supplies central vision. It causes blind spots in the center of your vision or blurred images.

The malady normally comes on slowly and is the leading cause of severe loss of vision in people 60 or older.

Support group help

The Sierra Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired has support groups for all eye disease sufferers that meet all week at the office at 546 Sears Ave. in Nevada City.

They also hold them at 1:30 p.m. every first and third Wednesday at the Grace Lutheran Church, 1979 Ridge Road. Call 265-2121 for more information.

Information from Sierra Services for the Blind and the Mayo Clinic

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