Most of us expect—and accept—the slow deterioration of our eyesight as an inevitable part of aging. But is it? A wealth of research indicates that protecting our baby blues (or browns or greens) could be as simple as eating the right foods or choosing targeted supplements.
In fact, eye health issues such as cataracts, macular degeneration, and glaucoma are really dependent on two things: heredity and nutrition, says Marc Jay Gannon, OD, optometrist and director of the Low Vision Institute in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. For example, women 45 and older who got more of the powerful antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, plus vitamin E, were less likely to get cataracts, according to a 2008 study published in Archives of Ophthalmology.
Lifestyle choices, including excess weight, high blood pressure, and smoking, can also play a role. “If you have a family history of eye issues, like macular degeneration or cataracts, then focus on a healthy diet (with fish and green leafy vegetables), exercise, watch your weight, don’t smoke, and make sure your blood pressure and cholesterol are normal,” says Johanna M. Seddon, MD, director of the Ophthalmic Epidemiology and Genetics Service at Tufts University School of Medicine and the New England Eye Center.
And it’s best to act now: Conventional treatments for more serious eye issues can be invasive (think laser treatments and surgery). To protect your peepers as you age and to reduce your risk of the five most common conditions (read on), add the following supplements and foods to your diet, plus visit a nutrition-minded, holistic optometrist or ophthalmologist annually to keep an eye on vision health.
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD)
What it is: A condition that destroys the eye’s macula, a cluster of light-sensitive cells in the retina that is responsible for the sharp, central vision required to see fine details. Though its cause remains unknown, this condition is the leading cause of vision loss in Americans 60 and older. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that as many as 2.95 million Americans will have AMD by the end of 2020.
Who’s at risk: People with a parent with the disease; Caucasians; women; and people over 60.
What to take: More than two servings per week of omega-3-rich fish. This was associated with a decreased risk for advanced AMD compared to a no-fish diet, according to the National Eye Institute. “Fish oils reduce the oxidative stress that can create cellular imbalances in the macula,” says Gannon, who suggests taking 1,000 to 1,500 mg of fish oil supplements per day. “If you have a healthy weekly consumption of deep-sea fish, such as salmon or tuna, you’re probably getting what you need, but most of us don’t,” he says. In addition, a 2009 Harvard Medical School study found that women 40 and older who supplemented with vitamins B6 and B12 plus folic acid had a 34 percent lower risk of AMD. Folic acid and B vitamins reduce levels of homocysteine—an amino acid that, when present in the blood in greater amounts, has been linked to macular degeneration and its progression—and protect the eye against AMD, Gannon explains. He notes that those taking a daily multivitamin are likely already getting what they need of these nutrients.
What it is: A condition that affects the eye’s lens, which lies behind the iris and the pupil. As the eye ages, some of the lens’ protein fibers can clump together, which causes telltale opaque clouding.
Who’s at risk: By age 65, about half of all Americans will have developed some degree of lens clouding; after age 75, as many as 70 percent will have cataracts that are significant enough to impair vision. Also at high risk are smokers, people with high cholesterol or diabetes, and those who have had excessive, long-term exposure to direct sunlight.
What to take: Lutein and zeaxanthin. These plant pigment–derived antioxidants have shown to protect from UV radiation, says Gannon. Seddon recommends taking 6 mg per day. Also, a Tufts University study found that women 60 and younger who took 362 mg daily of vitamin C for at least a decade reduced their risk of developing cataracts by 60 percent. Resist the urge to overdose on this nutrient, however, as regular high doses (around 1,000 mg) of vitamin C derived from supplements (not food) have been shown to increase cataract risk, according to a recent study in Stockholm, Sweden. Gannon recommends 300 IU vitamin C and 400 IU vitamin E per day.
Computer vision syndrome (CVS)
What it is: A temporary condition caused by focusing on a computer screen for long periods of time. Symptoms include headaches, burn-ing and tired eyes, and blurred or double vision. CVS, if left untreated, may lead to glaucoma, according to a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
Who’s at risk: People who spend several hours a day looking at a computer screen. Low lighting and dry office environments can also trigger CVS, according to the American
What to take: CVS can be minimized by taking 200 mg of black currant fruit extract, 5 mg of lutein, and 1 mg of zeaxanthin daily, says a study in Applied Ergonomics. Astaxanthin, a naturally occurring carotenoid that is responsible for the reddish hues in seafood such as salmon and shrimp is also effective at preventing visual fatigue. In addition, bilberry helps ease CVS by improving blood flow in the eye, says Marc Grossman, OD, LAc, a New Paltz, New York–based holistic optometrist. He recommends 120 to 160 mg of bilberry daily.
Dry eye syndrome (DES)
What it is: A condition in which there are insufficient tears to lubricate and nourish the eye, causing persistent dryness, itching, and burning. Untreated DES can lead to scarring and impaired vision.
Who’s at risk: Contact lens wearers; women during and after menopause; people over 60; and those who are taking certain medications such as antihistamines, antidepressants, some blood pressure medications, and birth-control pills.
What to take: Omega-3 fatty acids. Women who ate at least five servings of tuna weekly (and, thus, had a higher dietary intake of omega-3s) experienced a 68 percent decreased risk of developing DES, compared to women who ate only one serving each week, according to a study by Harvard Medical School. “Omega-3s help the body to produce a more oily tear layer around the eye, which creates more lubricated eyes,” says Gannon. He recommends 1,000 to 1,500 mg of fish oil daily. Additionally, a 2008 study published in Contact Lens & Anterior Eye found that female contact lens wearers who took evening primrose oil, which is rich in linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid), showed improvement with symptoms of dryness. Grossman recommends taking 500 mg two or three times daily to relieve DES.
What it is: A buildup of internal liquid pressure that damages the optic nerve, which carries information from the eye to the brain. Although it typically causes no pain or symptoms, glaucoma can result in irreversible vision impairment or blindness.
Who’s at risk: All people over age 60; those with an immediate family member with glaucoma; African-Americans; Asians; diabetics; and steroid users.
What to take: Glaucoma risk decreased by 69 percent in women who consumed at least one serving monthly of collard greens or kale, says 2008 study published in American Journal of Ophthalmology. Researchers believe this is a result of the lutein and zeaxanthin found in these vegetables. (For recipes, visit naturalsolutionsmag.com and type “collard greens” into the recipe search box.) The same study also attributed carrots (also a good source of lutein and zeaxanthin) to a drop in glaucoma risk; women who ate more than two servings weekly were 64 percent less likely to develop the disease. “Lutein and zeaxanthin are critical for eye health,” says Gannon. “Both work to protect the eye from UV radiation.” Also, a 2003 study in Italy found that 40 grams of the herb ginkgo biloba, taken three times daily, helped treat glaucoma. In addition to lowering the pressure in the eyes that can cause
the disease, “it improves blood flow to your eyes,” says Grossman.
Erinn Morgan is a Durango, Colorado-based freelance writer.