The disease is caused by debris and waste which accumulate in the eyes and eventually destroy parts of the retina, leaving the sufferer with only peripheral vision - where everything directly in front of them is partly eclipsed by a central blind spot.
The incidence of the disease, age-related macular degeneration or AMD, is thought to have increased by 50 per cent in parts of Britain over the last two decades and urban areas tend to be worse than rural areas.
Now doctors and researchers at the Institute of Ophthalmology and Moorfields Eye Hospital, London, are seeking European funding for a pounds 400,000 research project to compare the prevalence of the disease in Britain, southern Italy, Spain and Denmark.
Professor Alan Bird, professor of clinical ophthalmology at the institute and one of the world's leading experts on the disease, who is co-ordinating the new research plans, said yesterday: "AMD now accounts for 50 per cent of the blind registrations in this country and the incidence has been increasing steadily over the last three decades.
"There is also evidence in populations outside Europe that prevalence is increasing very markedly. The experience in the Far East is so startling it is now difficult to ignore. In Japan the disease was virtually unknown 20 years ago but is now common in urban communities."
The disease affects the retina of the eye and involves a build up over time of tiny particles behind the retina. The retina constantly cleans itself, but in people with AMD it is overcome by the sheer volume of debris. When natural defence mechanisms move in to try and clear it away, some of the retina is irreversibly damaged. There is no cure nor yet any preventative treatment.
"The evidence that environmental factors are involved is very strong ... but we have to prove it which is why we want to do this piece of research comparing genetically similar people in different European environments,"said Professor Bird.
"We have to look at what has changed over the last three decades... Smoking is a risk factor, but then the Japanese have always smoked heavily and 20 years ago they had few cases of this disease. It may be that there are a family of environmental risk factors in urban areas. Pollution from traffic has certainly increased in the last three decades and that is another candidate," he added.
There is no effective treatment for AMD which leaves sufferers unable to drive, watch TV or read a book. They are also unable to see the person or object they are looking at although they have peripheral vision.Reuse content