Comedienne Rosanne Barr has often regaled her fans and the media with tales about her personal life. Now she has a new story, but this time the punchline isn’t funny.

At 63, Barr is slowly going blind.

“That one's harsh, 'cause I read a lot, and then I thought, 'Well, I guess I could hire somebody to read for me and read to me,'” Barr told a reporter from The Daily Beast. “But I like words and I like looking. You do what you have to do. I just try and enjoy vision as much as possible -- y'know, living it up.”

Barr has glaucoma, but her vision problems also stem from the eye disease called macular degeneration. Many people have never heard of it, although it’s the leading cause of blindness in the United States. Progressive and incurable, it’s responsible for most vision loss in people 55 and older and affects nearly 3 million Americans.

The disease stems from a slow breakdown of the central part of the retina, a layer of tissue on the inside back of your eyeball that serves as a tiny video camera of sorts, recording all the images you see and sending them through the optic nerve from the eye to the brain. The central part of the retina is called the macula, a spot in the eye where the vision in your retina is the sharpest.

If this part of your eye starts to deteriorate, you have macular degeneration. Your central vision may start to get blurry, or you may get a blind spot in the center of your vision. It becomes harder to read and see objects like faces in keen detail. If you notice such changes, especially if you’re over 50, see a doctor right away. Early treatment can help delay symptoms and preserve as much of your vision as much as possible.

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Getting older, a family history of the disease (Rosanne Barr’s father had it), being severely overweight and having high blood pressure or heart disease all raise your risk of getting the disease. But according to the Mayo Clinic, there are definitely some steps you can take to prevent it — or at least lower your risk:

Stop smoking. Smokers are four times more likely to develop the age-related form of the disease than non-smokers.

Lose weight. If you’re extremely obese, the disease may progress faster, so get as much exercise as possible to help slim down.

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Take care of your other medical conditions. Since high blood pressure and heart disease increase the risk of macular degeneration, take your medications.

Add fish and nuts to your diet. Both fish and nuts contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for heart health and may help protect against the eye disease.

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Eat more fruits and vegetables. Spinach and other dark green leafy vegetables contain two pigments that accumulate in the eye — lutein and zeaxanthin — and appear to protect the eye tissues from damage by free radicals. Research suggests they also help protect against macular degeneration. If spinach isn’t your favorite food, don’t worry – they’re found in lots of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, too, including grapes, squash, and kiwi.

Get regular eye exams. This may not prevent macular degeneration, but getting diagnosed early gives you the best chance of preserving your vision.

Other experts add that ultraviolet light is harmful to your vision and that you always wear sunglasses, particularly if you are at risk of developing macular degeneration.

It's also important to remember that macular degeneration alone will not necessarily lead to blindness, and that each case is different. Several years before Roseanne Barr’s surprise announcement, actress Judi Dench revealed she had macular degeneration. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, she was sanguine.“It's something that I have learnt to cope with and adapt to,” she said. “And it will not lead to blindness.”

Diana is an award-winning writer and editor with more than 20 years' experience in magazine, video, book and digital journalism, with a specialty in health coverage. She was a longtime writer and news editor at the Center for Investigative Reporting; has written for publications from the Washington Post to the Times of London syndicate; and has served as a senior and/or consulting editor at Time Inc. Health, Hippocrates, HealthDay News Service and Reporting on Health. She was also editor in chief of Consumer Health Interactive, a national health and medical web site, and has reported on finance for Blueshift Research and PBS Frontline. Before joining SafeBee, she was editor of Bioenergy Connection, a national magazine about bioenergy at UC Berkeley. Her favorite safety tip: Wear a bike helmet.