Causes and Risk Factors of Macular Degeneration

The exact cause of macular degeneration, often called AMD or ARMD (age-related macular degeneration), is not known—a frustrating fact for patients and doctors alike, as the condition is the leading cause of vision loss and blindness in Americans aged 50 and older.

That said, there are known risk factors for AMD—some of which you can have an influence on, like smoking, obesity, and sun exposure, and others that you cannot, such as age and genetics.


Watch Now: Common Risk Factors for Macular Degeneration

Common Risk Factors

Advancing Age

Age is the most significant risk factor for macular degeneration. About 1% of white adults ages 60 to 69 have the condition, but that jumps to 14% in those age 80 and older.


Studies have shown that you have a slightly higher risk of developing macular degeneration if you are a woman.

There seems to be a link between the onset of menopause and macular degeneration. In fact, there is research investigating the role of estrogen in macular degeneration treatment.

Also, because women tend to live longer, they are at higher risk of experiencing severe vision loss when diagnosed with AMD than men with the condition, as it progresses with time.

macular degeneration risk factors
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Macular degeneration is not reliably passed down, but hereditary factors can play a role.

Family History

Having a family history of age-related macular degeneration has been shown to increase your risk. If you have family members with macular degeneration, you should pay particular attention to other risk factors and be sure to go for regular vision checks.


Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in aging white Americans. The disease is relatively rare among people of other races, but it can occur.

Eye Color

Although it's not known exactly what causes the disease, the amount of pigment present in the tissue of the eye may play a role. People who have light eye color appear to be at greater risk of macular degeneration than people who have darker eyes.

Stargardt’s Disease

Stargardt’s disease is the most common form of juvenile macular degeneration, affecting 1 in 10,000 children in the United States. 

In Stargardt’s disease, there is a genetic defect that causes the photoreceptors of the eye to die. Vision loss begins slowly and then rapidly progresses, affecting central vision so severely that it causes an affected person to become legally blind while preserving peripheral vision. 

Stargardt’s disease can be diagnosed as early as 6 years of age and is usually noticeable before age 20. It is possible to have the disease and not know it until you are almost 40.

The condition affects males and females equally.

Vitelliform Macular Dystrophy and Best Disease

The second most common form of juvenile macular degeneration is Vitelliform macular dystrophy, also referred to as Best disease when it begins before age 6. 

Vitelliform macular dystrophy is a hereditary condition that may begin at a much younger age than Stargardt’s disease, although older individuals can be diagnosed with this condition. Vision loss may or may not occur in the early stages. It is diagnosed by the observation of yellow, fatty tissue in the macula, which are detected on eye examination.

Health Conditions

High Blood Pressure and Heart Disease

Hypertension and other cardiovascular diseases and conditions increase the likelihood of developing macular degeneration. Macular degeneration is associated with substantial vascular changes in the eye, and it is believed that the factors that contribute to heart disease and hypertension may also contribute to macular degeneration. 


Being overweight may be associated with developing age-related macular degeneration. Severe forms of the condition, such as geographic atrophy in macular degeneration and neovascular or exudative macular degeneration can be more prevalent, although the reason why is not concrete.

Macular Degeneration Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Old Man


Some lifestyle factors have been associated with the development of macular degeneration:


Research shows that smoking increases the risk of macular degeneration. The exact reason for this is not clear, but smoking does increase the risk of vascular disease in general, and blood vessel abnormalities play a major part of the disease process in macular degeneration. 

Sun Exposure

Spending too much time in the sun without ultraviolet-protective sunglasses appears to speed the development of macular degeneration.

Researchers have discovered that people with histories of prolonged, unprotected exposure to sunlight had more cases of severe macular degeneration than those without such exposure.

Diet/Nutrient Deficiency

Antioxidants may protect your cells from oxidative damage, which is partially responsible for many of the effects of aging, including macular degeneration. If you have low levels of antioxidant vitamins and minerals such as zinc, vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin E, you might have a higher risk of developing vision loss related to macular degeneration.

Studies also show that some types of high-fat diets may be associated with macular degeneration.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How common is macular degeneration?

    Macular degeneration is fairly common, affecting 11 million Americans.

  • Can you stop macular degeneration before going blind?

    Macular degeneration rarely causes complete blindness, though it can severely affect your central vision. There is no cure for macular degeneration and there are no treatments for dry AMD, but there are treatments for wet AMD that can halt or slow progression if caught and treated early.

  • What are the early symptoms of AMD?

    Symptoms of AMD include blurred vision, difficulty recognizing people, straight lines appearing as wavy, and a blind spot in the center of your vision.

13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  7. Genetics Home Reference - NIH. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Stargardt macular degeneration.

  8. Marchant D, Yu K, Bigot K, et al. New VMD2 gene mutations identified in patients affected by Best vitelliform macular dystrophy. J Med Genet. 2007;44(3):e70. doi:10.1136/jmg.2006.044511

  9. Peeters A, Magliano DJ, Stevens J, Duncan BB, Klein R, Wong TY. Changes in abdominal obesity and age-related macular degeneration: the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study. Arch Ophthalmol. 2008;126(11):1554-60. doi:10.1001/archopht.126.11.1554

  10. Sui GY, Liu GC, Liu GY, et al. Is sunlight exposure a risk factor for age-related macular degeneration? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Ophthalmol. 2013;97(4):389-94. doi:10.1136/bjophthalmol-2012-302281

  11. Parekh N, Voland RP, Moeller SM, et al. Association between dietary fat intake and age-related macular degeneration in the Carotenoids in Age-Related Eye Disease Study (CAREDS): an ancillary study of the Women's Health Initiative. Arch Ophthalmol. 2009;127(11):1483-93. doi:10.1001/archophthalmol.2009.130

  12. MedlinePlus. Age-related macular degeneration.

  13. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Age-related macular degeneration.

Additional Reading

By Troy Bedinghaus, OD
Troy L. Bedinghaus, OD, board-certified optometric physician, owns Lakewood Family Eye Care in Florida. He is an active member of the American Optometric Association.