Ask an Optometrist: I Have Age-Related Macular Degeneration. What Type of Glasses Will Help Me See Better?

It’s tough to see things straight ahead when you have macular degeneration. But the right pair of eyeglasses can protect and even boost your eyesight.

Person at the optometrist

As its name implies, age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, affects people who are middle age and older. Nearly half (close to 47%) of adults ages 85 and older have the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This makes it one of the leading causes of vision loss in older adults.

AMD affects the macula, the part of the eye that controls central vision. With age, the macula gradually gets damaged, making it hard to see objects straight ahead of you. Early on, you might not have any symptoms. But later, you may have trouble seeing faces, reading, driving, or doing close-up work, such as cooking or fixing things around the house.

AMD is a progressive disease and there’s no way to reverse it. But the right pair of glasses can help you manage your symptoms of the disease and allow you see better. Here, Whitney Wallace, O.D., an optometrist who practices at America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in Bolingbrook, Illinois, explains how to do just that, no matter what stage of AMD you have.

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The Types of Age-Related Macular Degeneration

Dry AMD is the most common type. It usually develops slowly as the macula becomes thinner with age. It’s divided into three stages:

  • Early dry AMD. This stage doesn’t cause any symptoms.
  • Intermediate dry AMD. At this stage, there can be mild symptoms, such as mild blurriness in your central vision or trouble seeing in low light.
  • Late dry AMD. At this stage, there are more severe symptoms, such as blurred central vision, blank spots when you look straight ahead, or straight lines that appear wavy.

Wet AMD is a less common type of late AMD. It’s caused by blood vessels growing abnormally in the back of the eye, damaging the macula. The signs of wet AMD are like those of late dry AMD, including blurred central vision and seeing straight lines as wavy.

Some people have AMD in just one eye, says Dr. Wallace. But whether you have it in one eye or both, and whether you have a few symptoms or many, it’s important to get a yearly eye exam. That way the optometrist can prescribe the best pair of glasses for your stage of the disease.

The Right Eyeglasses for Early-Stage AMD

“Fortunately, in the early stages of AMD, people don’t tend to have trouble with their central vision,” Dr. Wallace says. Still, she adds, you should “make sure you have the most up-to-date prescription to give you the best possible corrected vision.” For many people, this includes:

Bifocal lenses. These correct both up-close and long-distance vision. With bifocals, the lenses are divided into two sections. The bottom half lets you do up-close tasks such as reading, while the top prescription makes it easier to see faraway objects when you drive or watch TV.

Multifocal lenses. These also correct both up-close and long-distance vision. The difference: Bifocal lenses have two distinct prescriptions, but multifocals (also known as progressive lenses) are designed to gradually change from one prescription to the other. Multifocals also don’t have the visible line that many bifocals have.

Sunglasses. To protect your eyes from harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays — which can further damage the macula — Dr. Wallace recommends wearing sunglasses when you’re outdoors. “People should definitely be wearing UV-blocking lenses to help reduce the risk of AMD progressing to further stages,” she says.

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The Right Eyeglasses for Intermediate-Stage AMD

As AMD gets worse, you may have trouble reading, since the letters on the page may look blurry. If that’s the case, the eye doctor may recommend a few add-ons to your prescription lenses that can make even the closest task easier to tackle.

Tinted lenses. “Tinting the lenses can enhance what’s called contrast,” Dr. Wallace says. Contrast is the difference between colors — black letters on a white page, for instance. “The greater the contrast is, the easier it is for people who have reduced vision to make out those letters,” she says.

Antireflective (AR) coating. People with AMD can be supersensitive to bright light. AR-coated glasses reduce glare and bright lights, both of which can make it more difficult to see, especially when you’re driving at night. “If you don’t have that antireflective coating, then the headlights that are brutally bright can scatter across the lens,” Dr. Wallace says. “That just adds in another component that gets in the way of the best possible vision.”

Learn more about lens add-ons here.

The Right Eyeglasses for Late-Stage AMD (Wet or Dry)

With late-stage AMD, everything gets harder to see. And if you have AMD in just one eye, you need to protect the good eye. So, the optometrist might recommend the following eyewear:

Polycarbonate lenses. These lenses are made of polycarbonate, a type of impact-resistant plastic. That means they’re less likely to shatter if you fall or get injured. “We want people to wear those protective glasses all the time, so you can hopefully continue to use your good eye for as long as possible,” she says.

High-powered lenses. These eyeglass lenses act like a magnifying glass, making close-up objects look bigger. “What you do is just bump up the prescription power, and people with AMD can see a little bigger and better,” says Dr. Wallace.

How Much Better Will You See with These Eyeglasses?

There’s no lens that will make you see as well as you did before you had macular degeneration. But little add-ons, such as tinting or AR coating, add up and you’ll notice that you can see a little more comfortably, Dr. Wallace says. 

“We can’t undo what’s going on inside the eye, but we can give you the best setup with glasses to maximize your vision and the ability your eyes do still have,” Dr. Wallace says.

Medically reviewed by Whitney Wallace, O.D.

See our sources:

Age-related macular degeneration: National Eye Institute

Prevalence of AMD: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Best glasses for AMD: American Academy of Ophthalmology