2009-05-21 / Features

Keeping Your Eyes Young

The South Central Blind Association (SCBA) urges you not to take your eyes for granted. Many of us don't stop to think about how the lens focuses light on the retina, which converts the light into electrical impulses, which travel through the optic nerve to the brain, which translates the signals into words on this page. The eye works like a charm ... except when it doesn't.

First, the lens gets cloudy as you age. "The vast majority of people who live into their 90s will require cataract surgery," says Frederick Ferris III, director of the National Eye Institute's Division of Epidemiology and Clinical Research in Bethesda, Md. And prevention research to date shows the only proven way to reduce risk for cataracts is to protect your eyes from the sun and refrain from smoking. For other individuals, the center of the macula deteriorates and central vision is impaired. Age-related macular degeneration is the most common cause of blindness in the country.

But eating the right foods and taking the right vitamins may keep your eyes in working order.

Until the past several years, patients with macular degeneration had no treatment available. Now, glaucoma and macular degeneration can be detected early and there are two treatments for the wet-type of macular degeneration. Also, recent research suggests that what you eat may protect your eyes. This is what scientists are learning:

For those who suffer from the wet form of macular degeneration, the two treatments can make a huge difference. When the disease is in the intermediate stage, supplements taken together, lower the risk of the severe disease by 25 percent according to a 2001 National Eye institute (NEI) study. The supplements include high daily doses of vitamin C (500 mg), vitamin E (400IU), beta-carotene (25,000 IU) and zinc (80 mg).

For patients progressing to wet macular degeneration, doctors can prescribe drugs like Lucentis. The bad news is that Lucentis must be injected in the eye as frequently as once a month at a cost of about $2,000 each treatment. However, according to the NEI, the treatment appears to have prevented tens of thousands of people from going blind.

Currently, the NEI is in the midst of a new trial which is comparing lower vs. higher doses of zinc, lutein vs. beta-carotene and the omega-3 fats in fish oil vs. a placebo. The comparison is being made with zinc because in the first clinical trial vitamins slowed the disease progression only if taken with zinc. However, recent data shows that the most that the body can absorb is 25 mg of zinc, the rest is excreted.

Lutein is being considered for treatment over beta-carotene, as high doses of beta-carotene have been found to increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers. Researchers think that lutein may be important structurally for the retina itself as lutein makes up the macular pigment in the retina. The body cannot make lutein, it must come from diet. Lutein rich vegetables include the following (listed in descending order): Kale, cooked spinach, swiss chard, collard greens, raw spinach, frozen peas, broccoli, romaine lettuce, brussel sprouts, zucchini, asparagus, corn, green beans, iceberg lettuce, nectarines, and oranges.

Research is also focusing on omega-3 fats found in fish because studies are showing that age-related macular degeneration is less common among people who eat diets rich in fish. Other macular degeneration studies are looking at potential benefits linked to vitamins B and D and risks associated with obesity, high blood sugar levels and consuming red meat. One study showed that the risk of dry macular degeneration was twice as high in those who were obese. And another study showed a 50 percent increased risk of macular degeneration in people who ate more arachidonic acid, which comes largely from red meat.

So far, here's the best bet to lower your risk of macular degeneration and cataracts:

Eat 5 to 9 servings a day of fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens.

Eat fish (especially fatty fish like salmon) at least twice a week.

Lose (or don't gain) excess weight.

Limit carbs that raise blood sugar quickly (sugars, potatoes, white bread, etc.)

Take an ordinary multivitamin and-mineral.

The South Central Blind Association (SCBA) is a member of the Pennsylvania Association for the Blind (PAB). The SCBA is a private, nonprofit, charitable organization founded in 1948 for the purpose of preventing, preparing for and managing vision loss. SCBA is funded, in part, by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services, OVR in the Department of Labor & Industry.

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