Macular degeneration and glaucoma are eye conditions that may lead to vision loss. They share similar symptoms and risk factors, such as age, but they differ in the part of the eye affected and how doctors treat them.

A person having an eye test wearing a face maskShare on Pinterest
Morsa Images/Getty Images

Glaucoma and macular degeneration are progressive eye conditions that affect millions of people in the United States. Doctors also call macular degeneration “age-related macular degeneration.”

Although both conditions can affect vision, different eye areas sustain damage. In macular degeneration, the center part of the retina deteriorates, whereas glaucoma impacts the optic nerve and affects peripheral vision.

This article compares macular degeneration and glaucoma, including their symptoms, risk factors, and treatment and prevention options. It also explores whether the two conditions are related and how they differ from cataracts.

Macular degeneration affects the retina, which is responsible for central vision in the eye. It collects images a person sees and transmits them to the optic nerve.

When damage to central vision occurs, it interferes with a person’s ability to see well enough to drive, read, and recognize faces.

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

Dry macular degeneration is more common and develops gradually over time.

Wet macular degeneration causes abnormal blood vessel development under the macula, an area at the center of the retina that processes visual information. It can cause severe vision loss and develops more quickly. If symptoms appear, a person requires immediate treatment from a doctor.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss and blindness for people ages 65 years and older in the U.S.

Symptoms and vision changes

The symptoms and vision changes related to macular degeneration include:

  • hazy vision
  • colors appearing less vibrant
  • gradual central vision loss
  • light sensitivity
  • written text appearing blurry
  • trouble recognizing faces

A person should book an appointment for an eye test if they are experiencing any of these symptoms.

Risk factors

Certain factors may increase a person’s chances of developing macular degeneration.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) identifies the following risk factors:

Read more about macular degeneration here.

Glaucoma involves damage to the optic nerve in the eye. It can develop if fluid made by the eye does not flow out correctly. If this occurs, eye pressure may increase. Although there are different types of glaucoma, primary open-angle glaucoma is the most common form of the condition.

According to the Glaucoma Research Foundation, about 3 million people in the U.S. have glaucoma, but only 50% know they have the condition. It is the second leading cause of blindness worldwide.

Symptoms and vision changes

Glaucoma may not cause any symptoms initially, so some people do not know they have it. Once symptoms and vision changes start, they may include:

A person should book an eye exam to check any of the above symptoms.

Risk factors

Glaucoma can develop in anyone, but certain high risk groups include a person who:

  • is over 60 years old
  • has a family history of glaucoma
  • has diabetes
  • is African American
  • has severe myopia (nearsightedness)
  • has hyperopia (farsightedness), though this specifically increases the risk of angle-closure glaucoma

Read more about glaucoma here.

The vision loss in glaucoma typically affects side vision, while macular degeneration tends to impact central vision.

The conditions do not have a cure. Treatments may slow vision loss, but they will not restore it. It is vital to start treatment as early as possible to preserve vision.

Treatment for macular degeneration includes anti-vascular endothelial growth factor medications. These medications block chemicals that cause abnormal blood vessel development.

Read about whether treatments can reverse macular degeneration here.

Meanwhile, glaucoma treatment usually involves:

According to the AAO, multiple genes may influence the development of macular degeneration and glaucoma.

At present, the AAO does not recommend routine genetic testing for inherited eye conditions. Although macular degeneration and glaucoma involve multiple genes, behavioral and demographic factors can also influence these conditions to develop.

If both conditions occur together, though not actively affecting each other, the visual impairment will affect a larger area of vision than just glaucoma alone.

It is not always possible to prevent glaucoma or macular degeneration, as not all risk factors are controllable.

However, there are some steps a person can take to decrease their risk of both conditions, such as:

  • avoiding smoking
  • wearing sunglasses to decrease exposure to UV light
  • reaching or maintaining a moderate weight
  • monitoring cholesterol levels
  • wearing eye protection when appropriate to help prevent eye injuries
  • visiting an eye doctor regularly to diagnose any eye conditions early and slow vision loss

Research from 2019 suggested that vitamin C and vitamin E act as antioxidants in reducing oxidative stress of the retina or macular region of the eye. So these vitamins could play a role in helping prevent macular degeneration.

However, more studies are needed to explore the prevention of early development and the treatment of macular degeneration and other eye-related complications, including glaucoma and cataracts.

Several other eye conditions can lead to impaired vision and eventually blindness. For example, if left untreated, cataracts can cause loss of vision. Similar to macular degeneration and glaucoma, cataracts tend to develop in older adults.

Similar symptoms may include:

  • blurred vision
  • faded color vision
  • distortion of vision
  • symptoms occurring gradually

Unlike macular degeneration and glaucoma, surgery to treat cataracts is an option that typically corrects the problem and improves vision.

Read more about cataract surgery here.

The outlook for people with either macular degeneration or glaucoma may vary based on the form of each eye condition and how early the diagnosis occurred. Early diagnosis and treatment may help to slow vision loss. However, both conditions are progressive, and they typically lead to some degree of vision loss.

A person can attend an eye test, and the optician may refer them for further testing or treatments.

Learn more about types of eye doctors here.

Macular degeneration and glaucoma both affect the eyes and can lead to vision loss.

It is not always possible to prevent either eye condition, but regular eye exams may increase the chances of an early diagnosis and ensure treatment starts promptly.

Although there is no cure, treatment may help slow vision loss. It is vital to start treatment as early as possible to preserve vision.