6 November 2023

Macular degeneration is a silent thief and its impact is rising across Australia

| Lila Greyling
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older man at kitchen table

Martin Bowland says visual aids have made his battle with macular degeneration easier. Photo: Lila Greyling.

Once a prominent figure in Australia’s country music scene, Martin Bowland led a colourful life making good music. Now he has to rely on his memories rather than photographs to relive those heady moments.

Martin is one of about 1.9 million Australians being robbed of the gift of sight by a silent condition – macular degeneration.

“Over the past two years, I have lost my ability to drive a car,” he said. “If I didn’t have macular degeneration, I’d still be driving a car, I’m sure, and I’d still be in touch with a lot of people.”

2014 marked a tough year for Martin and his family. Martin’s eye specialist notified him of early signs of macular degeneration and his late wife was diagnosed with tumours on the brain. Naturally he felt he needed to focus more on her than on himself.

In 2015 he woke up one morning, and the world seemed less clear, “…there was a bit of a blur in my eye and I didn’t do anything about it, a bit foolishly… I went to an optometrist, might have been four weeks later, and he was very alarmed.”

Martin had a massive bleed behind the retina in his left eye and the answer was not what he wanted.

“It’s too late, he said. If you’d gotten here within a week or so, he said, we could have, you know, done something.”

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Martin was diagnosed with macular degeneration, which affects part of the retina known as the macula located in the central region at the back of the eye. It allows us to see fine details and is responsible for our colour vision.

Associate Professor Matt Rutar explained the macula was made up of many intricate connections.

“That in total is really what gives us our ability to function normally in the world we are living,” Matt said.

Macular degeneration is one of the leading causes of vision loss in Australia with one in seven Australians over the age of 50 already living with some form of the disease and about eight million more are at risk.

“With an ageing population only expected to increase and as much as double in the coming decades, it is a severe problem,” Matt said.

He’s starting new research into a type of white blood cell that represents a crucial strategy to immobilise and kill invading micro-organisms, known as Neutrophil Extracellular Traps (NETs). This had not previously been identified to any extent within vision research.

“We’re very interested to see whether or not any of the features of those cells might give us insight into how the disease is caused and how we might use that knowledge to devise better treatments,” Matt said.

But research takes time, money and a lot of patience which tend to leave patients with limited hope.

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After his diagnosis, one of Martin’s daughters took it upon herself to find out more about the condition and what they could expect due to a lack of information from the optometrist.

She found Vision Australia provided a range of services to assist sufferers with tasks around the house, including aids it installed to make everyday life easier with low vision.

Aids to assist Martin include a bright coloured line on his oven to indicate the 180 degree heat setting and coloured buttons on his microwave. His family also gave him brightly coloured cutlery because Martin found bright colours, especially a neon orange, easy to see.

During the visit, Vision Australia established white light (the colour of average mid-day light which shows the true colours of objects it falls on) was best for his eyes and provided him with a white light lamp to assist with reading.

“It’s got a nice magnified lens on top of it too, and very kind of them to provide that,” Martin said.

Nowadays, he feels he is confined more within the walls of his home. Like many sufferers, he’s lost confidence in going out to the shops, social activities and strolls because he can’t see easily enough to navigate the world he used to know. The aids give him some ability to continue living independently.

Adapting to living without a prime sense takes a toll and can be difficult to get used to without some assistance. If you or any of your loved ones need vision assistance, reach out to Eyes for Life Canberra, Macular Disease Foundation Australia or Vision Australia to find out more.

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