The most important risk factor for both cataracts and macular degeneration is getting older. However, recent research suggests that your food intake can protect your eyes as well as intake of some specific nutrients. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables and a lifestyle that does not include weight gain or smoking can go far in reducing the chance of macular degeneration and cataracts, and high levels of vitamins and zinc can slow macular degeneration in 25 percent of those already afflicted with the disease.
The lens of the eye focuses light on the retina at the back of your eyeball. The lens is supposed to remain clear, as it is when we are young. Opaque areas called cataracts scatter light and blur vision, and these areas increase as we age. In the case of macular degeneration, the macula, which is the very center of the retina, degenerates and blurs the sharp, clear, detailed vision that we usually have in younger years which makes it hard to see, read, drive effectively or do other close work like sewing or cleaning.
If you have a high risk of macular degeneration, your eye doctor will be able to see collections of oxidized fats accumulating in your eye. These are called drusen, and they build up under your retina at the back of the eye. By the time you are in your 60s or 70s, there is a significant amount of drusen, which in some people is not recognized by the body as a natural byproduct. This causes an immunological reaction. There are two forms of macular degeneration. In the dry form, the rods and cones and epithelial cells of the eye simply die. With the wet form, new blood vessels grow behind the retina and leak fluid or blood. Until recently, there was little to be done, but now there are two forms of treatment that can help. Still, age-related macular degeneration is the most common cause of blindness, according to the U.S. National Eye Institute Division of Epidemiology and Clinical Research.
One treatment is to take large amounts of vitamins — specifically, 500 mg of vitamin C; 400 IU of vitamin E, and 25,000 IU of beta carotene as well as 80 mg of zinc; there has been some inquiry into lower amounts of zinc supplementation.
This is recommended at the intermediate stages of the disease progression. If the disease progresses to the wet stage, then drugs that stop the blood vessels from growing must be injected into the eye. Also under study are the nutrients lutein and zeaxanthin from green, leafy vegetables. Lutein makes up most of the macular pigment in the retina, and it is something that we don’t make in our bodies — we must get it from our diet. Another finding is that people who eat fish rich in omega -3 fatty acids have significantly less macular degeneration than those who do not eat fish. It is speculated that our photoreceptors are rich in EPA and DHA, the fatty acids found in fish.
Cataracts occur when sunlight or other damages occur in the lens of the eye. When the proteins in the lens are damaged, they form links with other proteins which then form clumps in the lens and distorts the light reaching the retina, causing blurry images. As we age, a protecting protein called alpha crystalline begins to be used up and cataracts can begin forming. Statistically, the vast majority of people living into their 90s will require cataract surgery.
The best way to lower your risk of macular degeneration and cataracts is to eat five to nine servings per day of fruit and vegetables, especially leafy greens with lutein. Eat fatty fish like salmon at least twice a week, lose or don’t gain excess body weight, limit the carbs that raise blood sugar quickly such as white bread, sugar, white rice, white potatoes, and take a good quality multivitamin/multi-mineral. See you at the finish line.
• Jane Riley, B.A.,C.P.T., C.N.A., can be reached at email@example.com, 808-212-1451 or www.janerileyfitness.com.