What is macular degeneration?
It's the leading cause of irreversible blindness in the elderly—worse than cataracts and glaucoma, though as we age our eyes become more vulnerable to many damaging conditions. Make sure you're practicing these 39 simple habits that protect your eyes
The back wall of the eye, called the retina, has a central section, called the macula, which is responsible for many key components of our sight, including our ability to read, recognize faces and colors, drive a car, and detect fine details. Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the deterioration of the macula and the resulting loss of those important functions. AMD affects over 10 million Americans, says the American Macular Degeneration Foundation (AMDF). There are two types: The more common "dry" form (caused by the thinning and atrophying of the macula) and the less common "wet" form (caused by the formation of blood vessels under the retina and macula that may leak).
What your diet can do
The good news is, a growing body of evidence is finding that the right diet can slash your chances of developing AMD. (Check out these surprising ways to improve your eyesight
—no carrots.) "Nutrition can be a powerful way to keep our eyes functioning into old age," says Angel Planells, MS, RDN, Seattle-based founder of ACP Nutrition
, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
. Johanna M. Seddon, MD, ScM, Professor of Ophthalmology at Tufts University School of Medicine, director of the Ophthalmic Epidemiology and Genetics Service at Tufts Medical Center, and co-author of the book Eat Right for Your Sight
agrees: "I think more and more people are coming to appreciate the impact nutritional factors have on eye disease," she says.
Omega-3 fatty acids
So what are these fantastic foods that can combat AMD? One category are foods with omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to play a role in the health of the retina's photoreceptor cells, Dr. Seddon explains. Sources of those good omega-3's
include cold, deepwater fish like salmon and sardines, as well as walnuts, Brussels sprouts, spinach, and omega-3 enriched foods like yogurt and eggs, Planells adds.
A dynamic carotenoid duo
Large quantities of two key carotenoids—lutein and zeaxanthin—are found in the macular region of the retina, and are thought to help the eyes largely by filtering out harmful, high-energy blue wavelengths of light, says the American Optometric Association (AOA). However the human body does not naturally produce all the lutein and zeaxanthin needed for this important function, so it's crucial to get these nutrients through foods like kale, spinach, collard greens, and turnip greens. Eggs yolks are also loaded with this combo. Fat is needed for us to absorb these nutrients, Planells points out, so drizzle some olive oil over these foods or eat them with a meal. Supplement forms of these nutrients are also beneficial, says the AOA. Try one of these creative kale recipes
Eyesight is yet another area of health that can benefit from antioxidants, such as vitamins E and C. As you age you have more oxidative stress, so antioxidants can prevent the damaging effects of the buildup of oxidant chemicals, Dr. Seddon explains. Indeed, a pair of large studies by the National Eye Institute
found that people at high risk of developing advanced AMD lowered that risk by about 25 percent when they took a high-dose combination of vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and zinc. Great vitamin C sources
include citrus, peppers, broccoli, and strawberries, while top vitamin E sources are peanuts, hazelnuts, almonds, broccoli, spinach, safflower seeds, and fortified foods like breakfast cereals, says Planells. Beta-carotene can be found in those iconic sight-healthy carrots, as well as sweet potatoes, winter squash, spinach, and fruits including cantaloupe and apricots.
Let's zero in on on zinc, which is a mineral that helps deliver vitamin A from the liver to the retina, which is needed to produce melanin—a pigment that protects the eye, according to the AOA. It's not surprising, therefore, that sight problems including poor night vision and cataracts have been associated with a deficiency in zinc
, and that research has found individuals at high risk for AMD can slow the condition's progression by taking zinc combined with certain antioxidants. Great zinc sources include oysters, red meat, poultry, beans, whole grains, and some dairy products, says Planells. While supplements are available, the AOA points out that zinc supplementation may interfere with the body's ability to absorb copper and therefore recommends pairing zinc with copper supplements
Your daily D
One of Dr. Seddon's current areas of research is the potentially beneficial impact vitamin D may have on macular degeneration. This nutrient could offer triple protection against age-related problems by virtue of not only its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, but also its anti-angiogenic properties, meaning it can inhibit the growth of new blood vessels involved in wet AMD. Get more vitamin D in your diet
by eating fatty fish (such as salmon, cod, tuna, and halibut), eggs, and fortified milks, cereals, and orange juice.
The causes behind AMD could include chronic inflammation in the retina and the vascular layer of the eye called the choroid, says a 2016 study in Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences
. Fortunately, Dr. Seddon points out, many of these nutrients—including lutein, zeaxanthin, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin D—also offer beneficial anti-inflammatory properties, further protecting the eyes from AMD.
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If all these food choices feel like a lot to keep track of, Dr. Seddon has good news: "The Mediterranean diet combines everything we're talking about," she says. "It's a healthy pattern of food intake that's high in beneficial things, like vegetables, fruit, and fish, and low in things that are harmful, such as saturated fats and trans fats." Indeed, Dr. Seddon co-authored a 2015 paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
that concluded, "higher adherence to a Mediterranean diet was associated with reduced risk of progression to advanced AMD." Follow the Mediterranean diet
by focusing on certain kinds of fish, nuts, seeds, vegetables prepared with olive oil, and fresh fruits.
That cup 'o joe has a lot more health benefits than anyone thought
. Now it looks like caffeine may be protective against macular degeneration, according to 2016 data from an ongoing Portuguese study
. While the study supported other research that has found staple components of a Mediterranean diet—such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and fish—reduce the risk of AMD, it also found that caffeinated beverages popular in that region might offer added protection. Macular degeneration was less common among those who consumed the equivalent of one espresso shot daily, prompting co-author Joao Figueira, MD, from the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Coimbra in Portugal, to suspect the antioxidants in caffeine may help combat the condition.