Despite the fact that age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of vision loss among people age 50 and older, many of us are not aware (or choose to ignore) that we could be at risk. After all, it’s an “age-related,” thing so that can’t mean us! Unfortunately, we may be at risk and once the process of degeneration has begun there is no cure. Here’s what you should know about macular degeneration and how the right diet may help you protect your vision.
More than 2 million Americans have age-related macular degeneration (AMD). It’s a leading cause of vision loss among people aged 50 and older. ~ National Institutes of Health
The human eye is like a camera. The macula is the central and most sensitive area of the so-called film. When it is working properly, the macula collects highly detailed images at the center of the field of vision and sends them up the optic nerve to the brain, which interprets them as sight. When the cells of the macula deteriorate, images are not received correctly. In early stages, macular degeneration does not affect vision. Later, if the disease progresses, people experience wavy or blurred vision, and, if the condition continues to worsen, central vision may be completely lost. (Imagine not being able to see what is directly in front of you – faces, the road, your home?) People with very advanced macular degeneration are considered legally blind. Even so, because the rest of the retina is still working, they retain their peripheral vision, which is not as clear as central vision.
The specific factors that cause macular degeneration are not conclusively known, and research into this little understood disease is limited by insufficient funding. At this point, what is known about age-related macular degeneration is that the causes are complex, but include both heredity and environment. Scientists are working to understand what causes the cells of the macula to deteriorate, seeking a macular degeneration treatment breakthrough.
Obviously age is a major risk factor for AMD. The disease is most likely to occur after age 60, but it can occur earlier. Other risk factors include:
According to published findings from a recent Portuguese study, people following a Mediterranean diet may have a 35 percent lower risk of AMD.
Previous population studies have found that a high glycemic diet is associated with AMD onset and progress. Carbohydrates with a high glycemic load, such as white bread, can be quickly digested and so cause spikes in blood sugar. Carbohydrates with a low glycemic load, such as whole-grain bread, take longer to digest. Their digestion involves gut bacteria, collectively known as the microbiome. A Tufts University study using two groups of mice, one fed a high glycemic diet and the other fed a low glycemic diet, indicates an interaction between dietary carbohydrates, the gut microbiome, specific biochemical molecules, and AMD features. According to one of the research team leaders, this work could lead to new approaches to understand, diagnose, and treat early AMD.
In a recent study conducted in Portugal, researchers found that people who closely followed a Mediterranean diet (which is low on the glycemic index) had a 35 percent lower risk of AMD, and eating lots of fruit and vegetables was especially beneficial.
According to Taylor Smith, of Jackson Eye Associates, “Several long-term studies have shown that daily doses of vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, zinc, copper, lutein, and zeaxanthin decreased the rate of progression of some forms of macular degeneration. In general, a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and nuts can provide much of the recommended vitamin intake.”
Being proactive about your eye health is one of the best ways to protect your vision – see your eye professional for routine checkups, avoid smoking, exercise regularly, maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and eat a healthy diet, low in fats and sugars and rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fish.
“Anyone over age 50 should have annual dilated eye exams with an ophthalmologist to screen for macular degeneration, especially if there is a family history of the disease,” adds Dr. Smith. “If you already know that you have macular degeneration, and you experience vision changes, especially sudden vision changes associated with distortion of your central vision, you should seek immediate care.”
Taylor F. Smith, M.D., General Ophthalmologist and Cataract Surgeon, at Jackson Eye Associates in Jackson, received his Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of MS School of Medicine and served his residency at University of MS Medical Center.
Dig Deeper Eat Right for Your Sight by Jennifer Trainer Thompson and Johanna M. Seddon, MD, ScM Proper nutrition is critical to eye health. It’s important to know not only what to eat, but also how much. Check out Eat Right for Your Sight and learn how you can help protect your vision and enjoy delicious foods at the same time.