Prevention & Recovery

What you should know about vision loss

FlickrCC/Ahmed Sinan Image by: FlickrCC/Ahmed Sinan Author: Canadian Living

Prevention & Recovery

What you should know about vision loss

Donna Green thought she was just getting a little clumsy. “I was always athletic in my younger years and I noticed I wasn’t picking things up peripherally in my mid-20s," she says.

She didn’t know at the time that she was experiencing the first symptoms of Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), an eye disease that slowly damages the retina, leading to blindness. It affects one in 3,500 Canadians and it’s genetic: both of Green’s parents were carriers.

Now 60, entrepreneur and philanthropist Green had no idea she had RP. “I probably waited a couple of years [before going to a doctor]. Generally, you think you’re being clumsy. It’s like ‘oh, I knocked over a glass. I didn’t see it, silly me.’ But if you do it enough times after a year or so, you go, ‘This really is not right’ and after a couple years of what looks like frequent clumsiness, you start to think twice about it.”

Retinitis Pigmentosa is just one of many retinal eye diseases being researched and funded by the Foundation Fighting Blindness. (The more-commonly known Canadian Institute for the Blind (CNIB) provides assistance and services to Canadians living with vision loss.)

The most common eye disease among Canadians is Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD), which causes a progressive loss of central vision. It’s estimated that one million Canadians live with some form of AMD and that number is only expected to rise thanks to the country’s aging population.

SIgns of vision loss
Some symptoms of vision loss to look for include:
  • Difficulty seeing at night
  • Difficulty adapting to dim conditions
  • Loss of peripheral vision
  • Blurring of central vision
  • Difficulty seeing fine details close up and at a distance, even with glasses
  • Distortion of fine lines and shapes
  • Development of a blind spot in the centre, or near the centre of the visual field
There are no cures for RP and AMD-related vision loss, but researchers are working on the problem. One is Dr. Valerie Wallace, Head of Vision Research at the Toronto Western Research Institute, whose work is supported by Foundation Fighting Blindness. Her team works on eye development and their current project attempts to rescue vision in damaged retinas through cell transplantation. The research focuses on the rod and cones of the eye – key areas affected by RP and AMD.

Wallace says that although research into the causes of RP and AMD is ongoing, researchers are developing theories. In genetic cases of RP, the disease may be the result of a rogue protein.

“It might accumulate and these rogue proteins malfunction,” says Wallace. “This stresses the cells and causes them to die.” She is quick to explain that they don’t still completely understand why the cells die.

Currently, there are three areas of research for RP: protective, corrective, and sight-restorative. Protective research aims to stop or slow down the damage caused by the genetic mutations that cause RP. Corrective research looks at ways to reverse the underlying genetic defect, including gene therapy. Finally, sight-restorative focuses on people who have lost some or all of their vision.

Wallace is optimistic about the research. “If you asked me 20 years ago about gene therapy, I would have been very skeptical."

Green is optimistic as well, and hopes that one day, vision loss won't require ongoing support - just access to a cure.

You can learn more about vision loss and research on the causes of retinal eye disease by going to the Foundation Fighting Blindness.
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What you should know about vision loss

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