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The thought of aging usually makes us worry about chronic issues such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes—not eye health. Yet, the growing prevalence of age-related eye diseases has brought them more into focus. According to the National Eye Institute, “Between 2010 and 2050, we expect the number of people with the most common eye diseases to double.” Making simple, preventive measures more important than ever.
The tissues of the eyes are susceptible to oxidative damage, just like tissues elsewhere in the body. Sunlight causes oxidative damage to the eye. As does blue light, an increasingly common concern in our screen-driven world. The good news is that studies suggest that a diet rich in nutrients that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties may help offset these potential threats to vision.
That’s why experts believe that nutrition plays a vital role in eye health. “It’s very important, since it’s the only means available to noninvasively delay the progress of age-related eye disease at present,” says Allen Taylor, PhD, director of the Nutrition and Vision Research Team at Tufts University’s USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging in Boston. Here’s a look at the some of the most common eye diseases that seem to accompany aging, and what science suggests we can do to head them off.
Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD)
The leading cause of vision loss in people 65 and older, AMD affects more than 10 million Americans. It gradually breaks down the macula (the densest part of the retina that contains your photoreceptors), thereby destroying central vision, which is what allows you to see fine detail for tasks such as reading or driving.
Protect Your Eye Health: The most revealing findings to date have been from the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS), a study of 4,519 adults, ages 60–80. They indicated that a specific antioxidant plus zinc formula (with vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and zinc) was effective at reducing
In addition, Harvard researchers concluded that “higher intake of bioavailable lutein/zeaxanthin is associated with a long-term reduced risk of advanced AMD.” Lutein and zeaxanthin are two carotenoids that concentrate in the retina and lens of the eyes, and one of their key protective functions seems to be helping to block out damaging UV radiation. The duo is found in egg yolks and dark green leafy vegetables.
To reduce your risk of age-related macular degeneration, try to get 6–20 mg of lutein per day from your diet and supplements. Although there is not much information on the amount of zeaxanthin to consume, both lutein and zeaxanthin have been shown to be safe when taken in amounts higher than 10 mg for many months.
And Australian study that followed over 2,000 people for a period of 10 years found that those who ate at least one serving of omega-3-rich fatty fish per week had a lower incidence of developing AMD. Another study of 7,752 adults found that those with the highest vitamin D blood levels had a 40 percent reduction in risk of AMD compared to those with the lowest concentrations. For prevention, try to get 1,000 mg EPA + DHA daily from omega-3 supplements, and at least 2,000 IU per day of vitamin D3.
One of the leading causes of blindness in the United States, especially among African-Americans, glaucoma is marked by damage to the eye’s optic nerve, which usually occurs due to increased fluid pressure inside the eye—called intraocular pressure (IOP). This leads to vision loss and blindness.
This widespread condition, affects nearly 25 million Americans age 40 and up. By age 80, more than half of all Americans have cataracts. Believed to be precipitated by lifetime UV light exposure, smoking, poor diet, and alcohol consumption, cataracts are a clouding of the lens that usually advances with age.
Protect Your Eye Health: Glutathione is highly concentrated in the lens and is believed to act as a free radical scavenger that detoxifies the delicate tissue. Unfortunately, glutathione levels in the lens decrease as we age, which may make the lens increasingly vulnerable to damage. Higher vitamin C (a precursor of glutathione) intake has been tied to a lower risk of cataracts, as well as slowing progression of cataracts.
A leading cause of blindness in the industrialized world, diabetic retinopathy is a complication of diabetes caused by damage to the blood vessels of the retina. Generally, the longer a person has diabetes, the more likely that person will develop retinopathy. But controlling blood glucose and blood pressure, and making lifestyle changes has been shown to alter the rate of progression.
Protect Your Eye Health: Data from the Diabetes Control and Complications Trial, a study of more than 1,000 patients with type 1 diabetes, demonstrated that following a low-fat diet, as recommended by the American Diabetes Association—which includes keeping saturated fat intake to less than 10 percent of calories and total fat to less than 30 percent of calories—slowed the rate of retinopathy progression by 33.2 percent. Higher dietary fiber reduced risk of retinopathy, whereas higher overall calorie intake, dietary fat, and cholesterol increased the risk.
A Spanish study published in JAMA Ophthalmology showed that older individuals with type 2 diabetes who got at least 500 mg per day of omega-3 fatty acids had an almost 50% reduced risk of developing retinopathy. And when researchers at the University of Wisconsin looked at antioxidants’ potentially protective effect, they found that users of vitamin C and E supplements had a decreased risk of diabetic retinopathy. But dietary intake of the same nutrients didn’t seem to have a preventive effect.