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Difficulty Seeing in Low Light

Macular degeneration is one of the most common causes of vision loss, especially in those over the age of 50. It is a progressive eye condition that causes damage to the macula, which is near the center of the retina. Getting early diagnosis and treatment is important, but for many people, macular degeneration is asymptomatic until the condition is fairly advanced, which is why regular comprehensive dilated eye exams are so important, especially as you get older.

Vision loss progression

Early macular degeneration usually causes no vision loss and no symptoms, even though there are small or few medium-sized drusen present, which are yellow deposits under the retina.1 Intermediate macular degeneration may cause some vision loss or other symptoms in some people, but not always.1 In this stage, there are usually many medium drusen or a few large drusen in the eye, pigment changes in the retina, or both.1 Late macular degeneration is when people typically experience noticeable vision loss or other symptoms. Especially in age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the earlier the condition is diagnosed, the more proactive you can be about healthy lifestyle choices, possible supplementation, and preserving your existing vision. Although macular degeneration by itself is unlikely to cause total blindness, it can significantly affect central vision.

Noticeable symptoms

The course of macular degeneration can vary widely among people and depending on what kind you have. Once symptoms do start appearing, the symptoms themselves can vary, as well. One of the symptoms of macular degeneration, including AMD and Stargardt disease, that some people might notice is difficulty seeing in low light situations, or when there’s a sudden change in lighting, like when you come inside from being out in the sun.2 Your eyes might take longer to adjust, or you might have continued trouble seeing in dim light. There are specialized cells in the retina designed to sense light called photoreceptors, and so if the retina and macula are damaged, your ability to have clear and sharp vision in lower light situations is impaired.

Lifestyle adaptations

Macular degeneration can make it difficult to see in low light situations, and although there’s no treatment that can change that, there are things you can do in your household to make it easier to see and function in dimly lit areas. Strategies to improve your vision in low light situations may include3:

  • Use lightbulbs that are at least 60-100 watts
  • Add more light from desk or floor lamps or clip-on lamps (like on books or headboards)
  • Put light behind and on the side of the stronger eye
  • Increase contrast where needed
  • Try different kinds of light (halogen, incandescent, flood)
  • Reduce glare when possible
  • Put contrasting paint or tape on stair edges and at doorways

What can you do?

If you’re finding it difficult to see in low light, see your doctor. There are a variety of eye conditions that could make it difficult to see clearly in low light. The sooner the underlying issue is determined, the sooner it can be addressed, and your vision improved. If you have macular degeneration and it’s getting increasingly harder to see in low light situations, talk with your eye doctor about visual aids that might help, or even working with an occupational therapist or low-vision specialist who can provide you with tips and tricks to deal with impaired vision in this way.

Jaime R. Herndon | December 2018
  1. National Institutes of Health: National Eye Institute. Facts About Age-Related Macular Degeneration. 2015. https://nei.nih.gov/health/maculardegen/armd_facts. Accessed November 25, 2018.
  2. Dunaief J. Less common symptoms of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). BrightFocus Foundation. 2016. https://www.brightfocus.org/macular/article/less-common-symptoms-age-related-macular-amd. Accessed November 25, 2018.
  3. Shirley Ryan Ability Lab. Home Modification Suggestions for Low Vision. 2018. https://www.sralab.org/lifecenter/resources/home-modification-suggestions-low-vision. Accessed November 25, 2018.