The macula is the center of the retina where sharp detailed vision occurs. As we age, oxidized fats accumulate in patches called "drusen" behind the retina. Large drusen, easily found in an eye examination, are a warning sign of macular degeneration.
The biggest risk factor for both cataracts and macular degeneration is age (and there is not much we can do about that!). However recent research has found certain foods and supplements which can reduce the risk for both diseases of the eye.
The U.S. National Eye Institute's first Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) completed in 2001, found that a program of vitamin C (500mg), vitamin E (400iu), beta-carotene (25,000IU) and zinc (80mg) slowed the progression from intermediate to severe macular degeneration by 25%, but did not help those in the early stage of the disease. A second trial is underway to test a lower level of zinc, lutein vs beta-carotene, and omega 3s (EPA and DHA).
Other nutrients have shown promise in protecting your eyes from macular degeneration. In a study of 5,200 female healthcare workers, those taking B vitamins were 33% less likely to be diagnosed with MD after 7 years. Omega 3 rich foods like fish have also been found to reduce the risk of MD. Vitamin D is also showing promise in lowering risk of MD. Obesity increased the risk of MD in several studies. Other studies suggest the arachidonic acid found in red meat increases the risk of MD.
Cataracts are opaque areas in the lens of the eye which blur vision. A new test can estimate your risk of developing cataracts, but prevention is less certain. The AREDS supplement program disappointingly made no difference to cataract progression. Obesity (again) and diabetes are known risk factors.
Lutein and zeaxanthin, two caretenoids found in the lens, are showing promise in cataract prevention. Foods high in these nutrients are (in order): kale, spinach, swiss chard, peas, broccoli, romaine lettuce and zucchini. Luckily lutein and zeaxanthin are also available in supplement form.
Don't wait for more studies before protecting your eyes. You can lower your risk of developing macular degeneration and cataracts by: eating more leafy green vegetables; eating more fatty fish like salmon and taking an Omega 3 supplement; getting (or keeping) your weight down; avoiding simple carbs (white flour and sugar); and taking a multi vitamin & mineral supplement with zinc.
This article is intended for educational purposes only; for medical advice consult your licensed health practitioner.