What is macular disease, the condition that has stopped Dame Judi Dench from driving?

Marie Claire Dorking
Dame Judi Dench has opened up about giving up driving thanks to her failing eyesight [Photo: Getty]
Dame Judi Dench has opened up about giving up driving thanks to her failing eyesight [Photo: Getty]

Dame Judi Dench has opened up about her faltering eyesight, revealing that she has given up driving as a result of her failing vision.

The Oscar winning actress was diagnosed with macular degeneration, a degenerative eye condition which according to Macular Society is the biggest cause of sight loss in the UK.

Dench has spoken in the past about her eyesight impacting her ability to read scripts, but it wasn’t until 2017 that she was forced to give up driving.

"A couple of years ago I stopped driving, which was one of the most traumatic moments of my life. It was absolutely appalling," she told Radio Times.

"But I just know I'll kill somebody if I get behind the wheel of a car now."

The 84-year-old went on to explain that she can no longer read the newspaper, books or do the crossword. "But, you know, you cope," Dench said.

Though she is unsure if or when she may lose her vision entirely, the actress doesn't want medical professionals to predict the outcome of her condition.

"I don't want to say. I can see enough... You adapt to it. So I ignore it altogether," she explained.

What is macular degeneration?

According to the Macular Society, macular disease is the biggest cause of sight loss in the UK affecting 1.5m people, with around 300 people being diagnosed every day.

Though it can affect people of any age - even children, the most common type of macular disease is age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which typically affects people over the age of 50.

Recent statistics reveal there are 600,000 people in the UK with AMD and this number is expected to double in the next 20 years as the population ages.

One in three people know someone with macular disease - it is more prevalent as dementia and represents a huge cost, care and societal burden, yet does not receive a level of research funding proportionate to its impact

And Dame Judi Dench, isn’t the only high profile star impacted by macular disease, ‘Eastenders’ actress June Brown is also a sufferer.

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What are the different types of macular disease?

As well as lots of types of macular disease there are also two types of AMD - Dry and Wet AMD.

“Dry AMD is the most common but less serious form of the disease affecting about 85% of patients,” explains Mr Sheraz Daya Ophthalmologist and Medical Director of Centre for Sight, www.centreforsight.com.

“The condition occurs when the cones and rods photoreceptors in the central retina become damaged and the central vision progressively deteriorates very slowly over a number of years.”

Wet type AMD is the most serious type affecting approximately 15% of patients.

“The condition is so called because abnormal new vessels grow below the retina and result in leakage of fluid and blood in the macula with rapid loss of central vision within days,” Mr Daya continues.

“This condition can now be successfully slowed down by early intervention in order to prevent permanent loss of central vision.”

Macular disease is the most common cause of eyesight loss [Photo: Getty]
Macular disease is the most common cause of eyesight loss [Photo: Getty]

What are the symptoms of macular disease?

According to Macular Society both dry and wet AMD affects people in different ways but people may see gaps or dark spots (like a smudge on glasses) in their vision, especially first thing in the morning.

Objects in front of them might change shape, size or colour or seem to move or disappear and words might disappear when you are reading.

Straight lines such as door frames and lampposts may also appear distorted or bent.

“Early symptoms of AMD may include difficulty in reading, difficulty in recognising people's faces and distortions in the central vision,” Mr Daya explains.

“The sight loss usually occurs gradually over time, although it can develop very rapidly due to sudden bleeding in the central area of the retina, the macula, with loss of central vision within a few days.”

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What are the causes of macular disease?

The Macular Society says our age and our genes are the biggest factors in developing macular disease. But there are lifestyle risks too; smoking, poor diet, high blood pressure and obesity can all increase risk.

“Though the exact cause of AMD is still unknown, there are several risk factors associated with the condition that include smoking, high blood pressure, being overweight and having family members with the disease,” Specsavers clinical spokesperson, Dr Nigel Best adds.

Can macular disease be cured?

Vision Express’ Director of Professional Services, Dan McGee said: “Although a cure for most macular disease is yet to be found, some macular conditions can be treated if detected early enough.

Mr Daya says the treatment of wet AMD has been transformed over the past few years by the drugs which block the vascular endothelial growth factor (anti-VEGF).

“These treatments are given as injections directly into the eye (intravitreal injections) under local anaesthetic at around 4 to 8 weekly intervals and are effective at slowing down AMD progression, preserving eyesight and limiting permanent damage on the macula,” he explains.

But having regular eye tests is also vitally important.

“This helps to prolong healthy eyes, and for those already diagnosed with the disease, advice from an expert optometrist can make a real difference to quality of life,” McGee adds.

Commenting on the need for further research Cathy Yelf, chief executive of the Macular Society says: "Macular disease is cruel and isolating. Day to day we hear from people about the devastating impact it has on their lives - taking away their dreams and plans for the future.

“And yet, despite its devastating impact, too little is known about its causes and for the majority of people affected there is not even a treatment, let alone a cure.

"We must do everything we can to raise awareness of this condition and weeks like Macular Week (June 24-30) enable us to do this effectively.

"Today, more and more people are being diagnosed with macular disease. It is already a major public health crisis with far more people living with macular disease than dementia. We must stop it in its tracks."

In a bid to encourage more people to get regular tests and spot symptoms early, Vision Express is working with the Macular Society, offering a free eye test at any of its stores nationwide (must be booked online: www.visionexpress.com/book-eye-test/ ). The offer will run until the end of August.

For more information about macular disease visit Macular Society or call their Advice and Information Service - 0300 3030 111