There are a number of health concerns that come with aging, some more scary than others. Among the most feared age-related diseases is loss of vision. Millions of Americans over the age of 60 suffer from age-related macular degeneration (AMD), and the numbers keep rising. Why? Scientists believe that poor diet and lifestyle choices, obesity, heart disease and diabetes have damaging effects on the eyes as well. Conversely, maintaining healthy eating habits may also help preserve good eyesight.
“Vision depends on tiny capillaries that supply the retina and other parts of the eye with nutrients and oxygen. Keeping those arteries healthy is essential,” said Dr. Monique Roy, professor at the Institute of Ophthalmology and Visual Science at New Jersey Medical School.
Adherence to a Healthy Diet Found
Most Effective to Protect Good Vision at Old Age
AMD progresses as cells in the macula of the eye die off. The macula is located in the center of the retina in the back of the eye and is responsible for central vision, which is necessary for reading and other tasks dependent on good eyesight. There is no cure for AMD other than preventive measures to avoid further damage.
Cataracts, an eye disease that is not necessarily age-related and can occur much earlier in life, affect the lens of the eye by damaging proteins responsible for keeping it clear. As a result, the lens becomes cloudy and vision gets blurry, especially in reduced light. Thankfully, cataracts can be surgically removed and damaged lenses can be replaced with artificial ones.
Another serious threat to eye health is diabetic retinopathy, which causes damage to the blood vessels in the retina and can lead to blindness. Like type-2 diabetes, diabetic retinopathy is preventable by effective blood sugar control. A Mediterranean-style diet, consisting of fresh fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains, seafood, lean meat and little or no added salt and sugar, is thought to offer the best dietary benefits for eye protection.
Foods that are high in carotene like carrots and sweet potatoes have long been considered beneficial for the preservation of good vision. But the overall dietary pattern someone adheres to may be more important than any single food, said Dr. Allen Taylor of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, Boston, in an interview with WebMD.
Dr. Taylor and his colleagues see a direct link between AMD and high-glycemic index foods that contain lots of sugar and refined carbohydrates like white bread, white rice, potatoes and pasta. “We suspect that proteins in cells in the eye become toxic when exposed to [these] foods, leading to AMG-related injury,” he said.
Among the most important nutrients for eye health are the vitamins A, B2, C and E, zinc, lutein, selenium and zeaxanthin as well as omega-3 fatty acids. Most of these are available as supplements, but it is preferable to get them from natural food sources.
For example, vitamin A can be found in carrots, kale and spinach and also in some animal food products like beef- and chicken liver (although with regards to the consumption of animal organs, you should exercise caution and choose the organic varieties).
B2, a.k.a. riboflavin, is abundantly present in almond nuts and seafood and also in milk, yogurt, eggs, green leafy vegetables and legumes.
Good sources of vitamin C are citrus fruits and juices, berries, pineapple, mango, papaya as well as tomatoes, Brussels sprouts and green and red peppers.
The richest sources for vitamin E are wheat germ, nuts and seeds.
Zinc is an important mineral for the maintenance of retinal functions. Oysters provide especially high amounts of zinc. Other sources are beef, toasted wheat germ, peanuts, pumpkin seeds and also dark chocolate.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are richly found in green leafy and cruciferous vegetables like kale, lettuce, spinach, broccoli and Brussels sprouts.
Selenium is an antioxidant that enables better absorption of vitamin E, thereby helping to protect the eyes against age-related diseases. Good sources for selenium are brazil nuts, tuna and turkey meat. Some caution is advised when taking selenium, especially in supplementary form, because it can become toxic in high doses.
Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in cold-water fish species like salmon, tuna, mackerel and cod. Flax seed oil and walnuts are adequate substitutes if you don’t like fish.
For people who are already diagnosed with AMD, a combination of high doses of vitamin E, beta carotene, zinc and copper has been found to be effective for slowing the disease’s progress. Clinical studies for the further improvement of AMD treatments are under way. Before taking dietary supplements for eye-health, all users are urged to consult with their doctors.