Stargardt Disease: Symptoms, Diagnosis, Risks, Treatments, And More

Last updated: March 16, 2022

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Stargardt Disease (STGD) is an inherited eye disease that causes vision loss. STGD affects the eye’s retina, which is a thin, light-sensitive tissue that lines the back of the eye. Specifically, Stargardt Disease affects a small area of the eye near the center of the retina known as the macula, which is responsible for the sharpness and clarity of vision (“visual acuity”). Over time, STGD impairs central vision which is relied upon to conduct tasks like reading and driving.  Stargardt Disease is a progressive disorder that causes increasing vision loss. Some people with the condition become legally blind, however, it is rare to experience complete blindness.

This article covers the prevalence of Stargardt Disease, causes, symptoms, prevention, treatment options such as assistive devices, and more.

Learn more about eSight and how assistive technology can enhance  central vision for those living with STGD.

Overview

What is Stargardt Disease?

Stargardt Disease is a genetic eye disease that results in progressive vision loss. The disease affects the macula region of the retina, which is responsible for central vision and visual acuity. People with STGD usually begin to experience vision loss in early childhood or adolescence.  However, some people with STGD do not experience vision problems until they are adults. 

There are various terms for Stargardt Disease, including Juvenile Macular Degeneration, Macular Dystrophy with flecks (type 1), and Fundus Flavimaculatus.

The ICD code for Stargardt Disease is H355.

How Does Stargardt Disease Affect the Eye?

Stargardt Disease develops as the result of a problem with the retina, which is the light-sensitive tissue lining the back of the eye. People who have STGD have affected maculas, which sit at the center of the retina, and are responsible for central vision and the ability to see in high resolution and view color. As such, most people with STGD have intact peripheral vision. 

Stargardt also affects the rods and cones in the retina. Rods are responsible for vision in dim and dark lighting, while cones detect color and fine detail. Rods sit on the outer edges of the retina; cones are in the macula at the center of the retina. Both rods and cones are affected in patients with Stargardt Disease, but the disease tends to affect cones more strongly.

A close up of the eye of a young child

How Common is Stargardt Disease?

Stargardt Disease is considered a rare inherited retinal disorder. STGD occurs in about 1 in every 8,000 to 10,000 individuals. About 95% of Stargardt cases arise from both parents carrying the mutated gene, although cases can develop if only one parent is a carrier.

Progression of Stargardt Disease 

Symptoms of STGD typically begin in late childhood or early adulthood. It is difficult to predict when retinal damage will occur or how fast the condition will deteriorate, as these factors vary from person to person. Age of onset does not predict severity or rapidity of disease progression. 

As Stargardt Disease advances, visual acuity will decline.  Typically, the further deteriorated vision is, the faster it will continue to decline until legal blindness is reached (20/200 or worse while wearing corrective lenses). Most people with STGD can expect an eventual visual acuity of 20/200 to 20/400.

Stargardt Macular Degeneration is a genetic disorder of the retina that affects the macula. It is also known as Juvenile Macular Degeneration, as signs of the disease usually begin in children and young adults. Age-related Macular Degeneration is not genetic, rather it presents as people grow older and their macula deteriorates. Although Age-related Macular Degeneration does not result in profound blindness, it can cause severe vision problems in older people, especially those over the age of 55.

Young child getting her eyes checked

Symptoms

Symptoms of Stargardt Disease

The signs and symptoms of Stargardt Disease usually first present in late childhood or early adulthood and progress in severity over time. 

The most common symptom of Stargardt Disease is a gradual loss of central vision in both eyes, to the point where it is difficult to perform tasks such as reading, recognizing faces, and driving. 

Other symptoms can include:

  • Trouble adjusting to low light
  • Impaired color vision
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Grey, black, or blurry spots in the central visual field

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Causes

Causes of Stargardt Disease

Stargardt Disease is transmitted via autosomal recessive inheritance or autosomal dominant inheritance. In the recessive form of inheritance, STGD is caused by mutations in the ABCA4 gene, where both the parents need to have at least one copy of the mutated gene. In the dominant form of inheritance, mutations in one parent’s ELOVL4 gene can also cause this condition.

The ABCA4 and ELOVL4 genes are responsible for making proteins and clearing toxic substances in the light-sensitive cells of the retina. Mutations in the ABCA4 or ELOVL4 genes effectively stop the removal of toxic byproducts from the retina, which causes harmful build up and the formation of lipofuscin in the eye. Ultimately, this results in the death of cells in the retina, causing loss of central vision.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis of Stargardt Disease

An eye specialist can diagnose Stargardt Disease through dilating the pupils and checking for any lipofuscin build-up (yellow flecks on the macula). The size, number, and color of the flecks can vary, but are typically irregular in shape growing outwards from the macula in a ring-like formation.

Medical Tests

An optometrist can also measure visual acuity and extent of color vision to assess vision loss associated with Stargardt Disease. 

Such tests include: 

  • Fundus photography – This test captures a photo of the retina to check for yellowish flecks on the macula.
  • Electroretinography –  This test measures the electrical response of light-sensitive photoreceptors in the eyes.
  • Optical coherence tomography – This test checks for any signs of retinal damage.
  • Genetic test – A genetic test helps in identifying the presence of mutated genes associated with Stargardt Disease.
A young woman getting her eyes checked with a slit lamp

Preventing Deterioration

Preventing Further Deterioration From STGD

There are some preventative measures that can be taken to slow the progression of Stargardt Macular Degeneration:

  • Avoid taking supplemental Vitamin A more than the recommended daily amount. Excessive Vitamin A intake may contribute to the build-up of toxic byproducts in the eyes and deteriorate vision. 
  • Avoid exposure to excessive light by wearing sunglasses with UV protection and a hat with a wide brim to protect the eyes.
  • Quit smoking and avoid second-hand smoke to prevent the accumulation of harmful chemical substances in the eyes.
  • Avoid heavy drinking as high alcohol consumption can exacerbate retinal damage and contribute to vision problems.
  • Consume fresh fruits and vegetables daily for proper nutrition. 
  • Check your weight and blood pressure regularly to ensure they are healthy. 
  • Visit an eye specialist at least every 2 years, even if you do not have any vision problems.
Young man at a doctor’s office getting an eye check-up

The Effects Of Vitamin A on People with Stargardt Disease

Excessive Vitamin A intake is a major risk factor for worsening vision in people with STGD. Rod and cone cells rely on Vitamin A to make important light-sensitive molecules inside the photoreceptor. However, the process releases toxic byproducts, which in healthy people, are removed with the help of the ABCA4 gene. People with Stargardt Disease are unable to remove toxic byproducts due to genetic mutations, which permits the build up of lipofuscin – a fatty substance that forms yellowish flecks in the macula region. Clumps of lipofuscin damage photoreceptor cells, and eventually cause cell death, ultimately resulting in central vision loss that is characteristic of Stargardt Disease.

Treatment

Treatment Options

Currently, there is no available treatment for Stargardt Disease, only prevention of progressive vision loss. The retina is a very fragile part of the eye which is easily prone to damage and tearing, making treatment and surgery difficult. However, researchers are striving to develop gene and drug therapies to treat STGD, with several clinical trials underway.

Clinical Trials Of Gene therapy

There are a number of clinical trials in the United States and Europe that aim to provide gene therapy for STGD. Gene therapy aims to repair or replace the defective ABCA4 gene. However, none of the clinical trials have been approved for commercial use yet.

Human Embryonic Stem Cell Transplant

A human embryonic stem cell transplant aims to replace affected photoreceptor cells with functional photoreceptor cells in patients with Stargardt Disease. Two prospective studies (phase I/phase II clinic) are ongoing in the United States.

There are also some preventive drugs for STGD under development. These pharmaceuticals are targeted towards preventing the build-up of lipofuscin.

Read more further on potential treatments for Stargardt Disease.

Award-Winning Glasses for Stargardt Disease

eSight is an effective electronic eyewear device that helps improve vision in people with Stargardt Disease as well as over 20 serious eye conditions. This low-vision assistive device stimulates synaptic activity from the user’s remaining photoreceptor function and provides the brain with enhanced visual information. 

In addition, eSight is clinically validated to increase vision by up to 7 lines on a doctor’s eye chart for people with legal blindness. eSight boasts a cutting-edge camera, and high-definition display powered by smart algorithms. The high-resolution 21.5 MP camera captures and projects real-time footage onto two OLED screens in front of the user’s eyes to enhance their vision.

eSight was founded as a hopeful solution to Stargardt Disease. Founder Conrad Lewis wanted to help his two sisters with legal blindness to see better. After about 30 years of tinkering, and 7 more years of research and development, the first eSight prototype was released in 2013. Today, 8 out of 10 people with Stargardt Disease experience enhanced vision when using eSight technology. Read more about how Stargardt patient, Tony Babb, used eSight to see his mother’s face and see new opportunities.

eSight low vision electronic eyewear significantly enhances central vision, empowering you to explore new possibilities in school, work, and home. See what’s possible with eSight.

FAQ

What is the ICD-10 code for Stargardt Disease?

The ICD code for Stargardt Disease is H355.

Is Stargardt Disease genetic?

Yes, Stargardt Disease is a genetic eye disorder that is transmitted via autosomal recessive inheritance or autosomal dominant inheritance. In the recessive form of inheritance, STGD is  caused by mutations in the ABCA4 gene, where both the parents need to have at least one copy of the mutated gene. In the dominant form of inheritance, mutations in one parent’s ELOVL4 gene can also cause this condition.

What do people with Stargardt Disease see?

A person experiencing STGD will have blurry or distorted vision, be unable to see in dim light, and have difficulty carrying out close-up tasks, such as reading and driving. In advanced stages, color vision may also be lost.

How rare is Stargardt Disease?

Stargardt Disease is a rare genetic disorder that occurs in about 1 in every 8,000 to 10,000 individuals.

How will my eye doctor check for Stargardt Disease?

An eye specialist can check for Stargardt Disease through an eye exam that measures visual acuity and central vision. Other tests, such as fundus photography, electroretinography, optical coherence tomography, and genetic testing can also help in confirming the disease.

Does Stargardt Disease lead to blindness?

Most of the time, Stargardt disease leads to loss of central vision or visual acuity to the range of 20/40 to 20/200. It can lead to a person becoming legally blind, but complete blindness is rare. Some people may have the disease without showing any symptoms until they are adults.

Is there a cure for Stargardt Disease?

Currently, there is no cure for Stargardt Disease, but there is ongoing research to change this. A person with Stargardt Disease can take several steps, including avoiding high Vitamin A intake, lowering alcohol consumption, maintaining a healthy diet, besides others to manage and slow down progression of the disease.

Can you drive with Stargardt Disease?

Stargardt Disease impairs central vision and makes it difficult to carry out  tasks such as reading, recognizing faces or working on a computer.  Low vision assistive devices, such as eSight can help a person make the best of his remaining vision and perform these tasks with ease.

Can glasses help with Stargardt Disease?

Unfortunately, prescription glasses cannot help with Stargardt Disease. However, using clinically-validated eSight can enhance vision and provide assistance in carrying out day-to-day tasks.

Does Stargardt Disease get worse over time?

Stargardt Disease is a progressive eye disorder, meaning that over time the condition gets worse. However, the rate of progression varies from person to person. Proper care and management of the disease can help slow down the deterioration of vision loss. 

What are the symptoms of STGD?

The most common symptom of STGD is loss of central vision in both eyes. Other symptoms include gray, blurry, and black spots in the central visual field, hypersensitivity to light, color blindness, and slow adjustment of the eyes to low light. 

Experience significantly improved vision today. Speak to an expert eSight advisor to learn more.

Community Resources and Support Groups

If you or someone you know has Stargardt Disease, there are plenty of support groups and resources out there to help.

Join eSightTogether, an online community for people with low vision that lets you connect and share with other like-minded people. 

Additional support groups: 

  • FB – Stargardt Disease Support Group: supports those who have Stargardt Disease or those who know someone with the disease
  • FB – Stargardt Support Group: brings together those affected by Stargardt Disease worldwide
  • The Stargardt Team: hosts a platform for those with the disease to post photos and information about living with low vision, also has a “Stargardt Room” in the message boards
  • Stargardt Network: Meets monthly and allows members and their family to connect and share resources and advice for managing life with low vision.
  • Stargardt Connected: Raises awareness and gives support to those with SGDT, and assists in progressing towards a cure.
  • FamilyConnect: Gives parents and other family members of visually impaired children a supportive place for sharing and finding resources on raising their children.

Latest Research

Although there is no treatment for the disease yet, research for a cure is ongoing.  Here are some reputable scientific sources to keep an eye on for recent Stargardt-related discoveries.

  • eyeGENE: This genomic medicine initiative created by the National Eye Institute facilitates research into causes and mechanisms of rare inherited eye diseases.
  • ProgStar: The organization conducts research and provides study reports for Stargardt disease.
  • ClinicalTrials.gov: A web-based resource that lists ongoing and completed research trials related to Stargardt disease.
  • My Retina Tracker: My Retina Tracker is a research database of people affected by retinal degenerative diseases such as Stargardt disease.

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eSight electronic eyewear enhances vision for people living with central vision loss, impaired colour vision, blind spots and more.
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