Many of us are paying more attention to our diets this year. But did you know the importance of nutrition for age-related macular degeneration (ARMD)?
ARMD is the leading cause of severe permanent vision loss in people over age 60. It has two forms: Dry, in which small deposits of fatty proteins called drusen accumulate under the retina, causing blind spots; and wet, in which blood vessels form under the macula and leak into the retina, causing a loss of central vision. There are treatments for wet ARMD that slow the disease progression by inhibiting unwanted retinal blood vessels’ growth. There is no cure for either the wet or dry form of ARMD. The dry form is slowly progressive and accounts for about 80 percent of cases. While drugs and cell-based therapies are in the pipeline, current treatments aim to slow progression. Nutrition is an important part of those therapies.
The macula contains organic pigment that is depleted by free radicals. Free radicals are molecules with unpaired electrons that are highly reactive and cause oxidative damage to cells. Antioxidants from foods and supplements build and maintain the retinal pigment layer. The noted Age-Related Eye Disease Study 2 (AREDS2), completed in 2012, found that antioxidant supplements reduced the risk of vision loss from advanced ARMD by 25 to 30 percent. Two antioxidants, in particular, lutein and zeaxanthin, have been found to absorb blue light and protect the retina. What’s more, omega-3 fatty acids and foods with a lower glycemic index, the measure of how quickly foods are metabolized into glucose, have been identified as important to retinal health.
We can get omega-3 fatty acids from fish and nuts, but where do we find lutein and zeaxanthin? While carrots contain alpha- and beta-carotene, which are also good for eye health, the “green leafies” and spinach in particular come out on top for those two antioxidants. Spinach contains both lutein and zeaxanthin, along with other nutrients that support healthy vision. Unfortunately, the average U.S. diet doesn’t include enough of those foods to meet the recommended levels for ARMD protection. The National Eye Institute recommends AREDS supplements to achieve the high levels of nutrients needed to reduce ARMD risk effectively. Supplements are available over the counter and should contain vitamin C, vitamin E, copper, lutein, zeaxanthin and zinc. These “eye vitamins” can be taken in addition to other vitamin supplements. We can encourage our patients and ourselves to “see what we eat” and promote not just healthy vision but also overall health.
• Linda Conlin
Pro to Pro Managing Editor