Changes in Color Perception

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | December 2018 | Last updated: October 2021

Getting early diagnosis and treatment is important, but for many people, macular degeneration, especially age-related macular degeneration (AMD), is asymptomatic until the condition is fairly advanced, which is why regular comprehensive dilated eye exams are so important.

The earlier the diagnosis, the better

The earlier macular degeneration is diagnosed, the more proactive you can be about healthy lifestyle choices, possible supplementation, and preserving your existing vision. It also gives you an opportunity to be more aware of the progression of the disease, allowing treatments to be done sooner when indicated if need be.

How do we see color?

There are various symptoms of macular degeneration, including distortions in color perception. Photoreceptor cone cells are responsible for color vision and are most dense in the macula, which is located in the center of the retina.1 The rod cells are mostly responsible for black and shades of gray and are found in the peripheral retina. The brain interprets how we see color, and when the cones process visual signals and send the messages to the brain, that is when we assign color to an image.

Color vision and macular degeneration

When these cones are weakened or damaged, we see the wavelengths differently and cannot send correct signals to the brain.1 When the cones start to weaken because of disease, shades of yellow, purple, and pastels tend to be lost first because they have lower wavelengths.1 This occurs in both AMD and Stargardt disease, with some people developing complete color blindness in late Stargardt disease.2 As the macular degeneration progresses and more cone cells become weakened and damaged, all color perception may be lost.

Inherited color blindness

This is not the same as inherited color blindness, which is caused by a genetic alteration in which individuals are born with abnormally developed cones or missing certain types of cones but is healthy in all other aspects.1

Lifestyle alterations

Although there is no treatment for the loss of color perception in macular degeneration, there are lifestyle alterations you can make to help make things a little easier on you, despite your impaired color vision. Label clothing items with their color for easier matching, or arrange and sort them in matching color areas. Color sensitivity naturally decreases with age, but macular degeneration brings its own challenges with changes in color perception in your vision.

Conversations to have with your doctor

Talk with your doctor about:

  • Connecting with a low-vision specialist who might be able to provide you with more practical suggestions about dealing with the lack of color vision.
  • What to expect with the progression of the disease and how it might affect your color perception.

Even if you aren’t experiencing any other vision impairment, contacting an occupational therapist or low-vision specialist might be beneficial, as they can provide you with information about how to cope with reduced color vision, and how to make the necessary adjustments in your everyday life.

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