Whether it’s tucking into a juicy book, watching the latest blockbuster at the cinema or spending quality time with friends and family, vision plays a huge role when it comes to our quality and enjoyment of life. Going blind is a fear for many and for Australian actress Jean Kittson, she faces the very real risk of losing her vision.
Jean is one of 8.5 million Aussies at risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) – Australia’s leading cause of blindness and severe vision loss. The painless, progressive eye disease destroys central vision and is most common in over-50s and smokers. Half of all those diagnosed have a first-degree family member with the condition and in Jean’s case, that relative is her mother.
Jean’s mother was diagnosed with AMD at age 50 in the 1970s after she noticed the lines on the road becoming wavy when she was driving.
“In those days, it wasn’t given a name, no one told us what it was, we didn’t understand anything about the disease,” Jean tells Starts at 60.
The Nugget star witnessed her mother – who is now in her 90s – lose her sight slowly over 40 years, forcing her to give up her job, driving and her biggest passion – reading. Jean’s father has macular dystrophy — a rare genetic eye disorder that causes vision loss. He cared for his wife for 30 years but with his vision also deteriorating, Jean is now a primary carer for both her parents.
“It’s just that loss of independence,” Jean says, noting her parents now struggle to complete day-to-day tasks such as cooking, going to the shops and walking up steps. It’s particularly difficult for her mother, who’s never been able to read her grandchildren a book, take them to the cinema or even see them with her own eyes.
“You have to find a whole new way of relating,” Jean says. “I talk to my mother about this and she said, ‘growing old and losing your sight is all about making adjustments’.”
It’s a balancing act for Jean between caring for her parents and not completely taking away the independence they have left. Instead of doing everything for her parents, the Hating Alison Ashley star teaches them by touching their hands and working out ways they can complete tasks without assistance.
Jean is aware she’s in the high-risk category for AMD and witnessing her parents struggle with vision problems is a constant reminder that she needs to take her eye health seriously. She visits her optometrist every year for a macula eye examination where an optometrist tests her pupil dilation and take retinal photographs and scans to look for early signs of AMD. Over-50s should undergo the eye examinations at least once every two years, while over-65s should have them annually.
“They know what they’re looking for. If they see any shadows on the macular, they say you need to go to an ophthalmologist,” Jean says. “If the deposits start laying themselves on your macular, they look for that.”
These tests are important as many with AMD don’t notice early warning signs. Others experience difficulty completing tasks such as reading or driving, vision distortion, difficulty distinguishing faces and noticing dark patches in central vision. Those with the neovascular (wet) form of AMD can undergo highly effective Anti-VEGF injections in the affected eye, but early diagnosis is key.
“The treatment helps to stabilise and maintain best functional vision for as long as possible,” Associate Professor Alex Hunyor, Chair of the Medical Committee at Macular Disease Foundation Australia, tells Starts at 60. “The aim is to stop the growth of abnormal blood vessels and leakage of fluid under the retina. The earlier the treatment is commenced, the better the outcomes.”
There’s currently no treatment for the early, intermediate or late stage of atrophic (dry) form of AMD, but diet, lifestyle changes and dietary supplements can also slow down the progression of some levels of AMD. Jean now consumes more vision-boosting foods that contain lutein and flavonoids such as fish, green leafy vegetables, capsicum, yellow vegetables and beetroot, while research continues to improve current treatment methods and develop new treatment options.
“There has been interesting research around developing interventions for the earlier stages of AMD to prevent or slow down progression to late stage disease,” Hunyor says. “Likewise, there’s been some interesting research around developing other medicines and methods to increase the interval between anti-VEGF injections.”
Witnessing the impact of AMD first hand, Jean believes Aussies need to take their eye health more seriously.
“We have to take advantage of the incredible research and understanding and we owe it to ourselves and our families to educate ourselves,” she says. “We owe it to the community so we can be more aware of people with vision loss. It’s treatable and you can do something about it in a lot of cases.”
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