Jean Kittson: ‘This is why you must put eye checks on your to-do list’

For much-loved Australian performer and comedian Jean Kittson, vision loss is no laughing matter.

Her family history puts the actor and scriptwriter at increased risk of macular degeneration.

That’s why she is urging others to get checked during Macula Month.

What is age-related macular degeneration?

The macula is part of the retina at the back of the eye, according to Macular Disease Foundation Australia. While only about 5mm in diameter, it is responsible for our central vision, most of our colour vision and our ability to see fine detail.

Approximately 1.5 million Australians have some evidence of age-related macular degeneration.

A painless, progressive eye disease that destroys central vision, AMD is the most common macular disease, accounting for 50 per cent of all cases of blindness and severe vision loss in Australia.

Statistics released by Macular Disease Foundation Australia show while general awareness of AMD is relatively high (72 per cent), most people (63 per cent) are unaware having a parent or sibling with AMD carries a 50 per cent risk of diagnosis too.

Jean’s family link to macular degeneration

For Jean, those risks are startlingly real. As an ambassador for MDFA and the prime carer for her ageing parents – both blinded by macular disease – she knows she’s in the high-risk category.

But she is concerned that others don’t.

“In my family, I can see that AMD goes way back, generation after generation. Everyone thought it was just bad luck or a symptom of aging,” she says.

“But now we have a name for it and know there are things you can do about it.”

Never afraid to tackle life’s most confronting issues and always with her trademark humour, the Aussie icon who first found fame on the ABC’s The Big Gig speaks candidly of the profound impact the disease has had on her family.

Confronting and emotional disease

“My Mum Elaine was diagnosed before they had a name for it,” she tells The House of Wellness.

“When she was about 50 she saw her opthalmologist and he said, ‘You are going to go blind’.

“I was in my 20s then and didn’t understand the huge impact this would have.

“She lost her licence because she couldn’t see the road. Her passion was reading and she could no longer read.

“She couldn’t see the pictures and photographs her grandchildren wanted to show her.”

Jean says while her mother lost her sight to AMD, her father, Roy, has macular dystrophy and his sight also rapidly diminishing.

“I see my parents’ courage in the face of losing their sight and I admire the way they constantly adjust their lives around this loss, never complaining, and I try to be as useful as possible,” she says.

Comedian Jean Kittson

Why getting eye checks is vital

“If people don’t know they’re at risk, they won’t be vigilant about regular macula checks, they won’t know the warning signs and they won’t make those diet and lifestyle changes that are proven to delay onset and progression of AMD,” Jean says.

“We need to talk about it with our loved ones. If there’s AMD in the family, you’re at risk. If you’re over 50, you’re at risk. If you’re a smoker, you’re at risk.

“There’s no cure for AMD, but for some forms of the disease there are effective treatments that can save your sight, if you act early.”

The top 3 risk factors for age-related macular degeneration:

  • Age: People over the age of 50 are at risk
  • Family history: Those with a direct family history have a 50 per cent risk of developing the disease. Direct family members should have their eyes checked and follow the diet and lifestyle recommendations of the MDFA.
  • Smoking: Studies show those who smoke are three to four times for likely to develop AMD. Read more on how to quit smoking for good.

Written by Liz McGrath.