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Age-Related Macular Degeneration

What is Macular Degeneration?

Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD) is a painless, progressive eye disease which causes the breakdown of the macula, the small, central part of the retina. The macula is the light-sensing portion that allows us to see fine details (sharp vision). The macula also contains pigmented cells which enable you to see colors. The deterioration is caused by the death of the photoreceptor cells (rods and cones). Photoreceptors “see” light and are essential for vision. People with AMD have gradual loss of central vision. With time AMD can cause frontal blindness and significant vision loss in both eyes. It is the leading cause of irreversible vision loss in people over 65 in the United States.

Risk Factors

Age is the greatest risk factor. Some signs of AMD are found in 25 percent of people over 60 and 32 percent of people over 75. AMD may be in part inherited. Individuals with one or more immediate family members such as a parent or sibling with AMD are at increased risk. Smoking, which reduces the eye’s protective antioxidant levels, increases the risk for AMD. Women over age 75 may be at increased risk, possibly from low postmenopausal estrogen levels. High blood pressure creates a risk due to impaired blood circulation to the retina. Being overweight or obese may be a risk factor.

How To Protect Yourself From AMD

While one cannot change one’s age or family tree, there are lifestyle choices/changes which may be made to help protect your eyes. Wear sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats to shade your eyes from direct or reflected light. Stop smoking, or do not start in the first place. Limit saturated and trans fats in your diet and keep your blood pressure down. Limit your alcohol intake: six drinks per week for men and three for women. And, very importantly, eat a diet rich in fruits and leafy green vegetables. There is a tremendous amount of evidence that an antioxidant-rich diet may improve eye health, help prevent the onset of macular degeneration, and even slow the rate of vision loss.

Radical Risk

Free radicals occur naturally and damage the fragile cells of the macula. These harmful molecules are produced by environmental insults such as cigarette smoke and UV light. In macular degeneration, the biggest and most obvious assault to the eyes is light. The body has made use of certain antioxidant substances here with which to protect itself. The two carotenoid pigments lutein and zeaxanthin are found concentrated in the macula and their presence shows a clear association with protection of the macula and thus macular degeneration. In the plants in which they occur, such as calendula (marigold) and spinach, their function is to protect the plant from excessive light. This power duo may shield up to 40 percent of damaging UV rays to help protect the retina. Other carotenoids are certainly beneficial to eyesight, but these two pigments are preferentially deposited in the macula to protect it. Lutein and zeaxanthin are xanthophyll carotenoids, meaning they do not have pro-vitamin A activity. Unlike beta-carotene, for instance, they do not convert to vitamin A in the body, but exert their benefits independently. There have been reams of studies showing how antioxidants benefit the eye, and diet/nutrition/antioxidant intake is inextricably linked to protection of the eye whether it is AMD or a variety of vision-related conditions. One famous study showed that people who ate the most foods rich in lutein and zeaxanthin had a 43 percent lower risk of developing macular degeneration than those who ate the smallest amount of such foods. Good food sources of these nutrients include kale, spinach, collard greens, mustard greens, parsley, broccoli, green peas, and goji berries.

Antioxidant Assists

In 2001, the National Eye Institute published its findings from their 6-year study of over 3,000 participants. A statistically significant reduction in the risk of development of macular degeneration was found with the use of antioxidants, including vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and zinc. Supplements of these potentially protective nutrients, as well as lutein and zeaxanthin, may be beneficial for people who cannot eat enough of the foods in which they occur. Evergreen Nutrition has an extensive Eye Health section, with many different options for lutein and zeaxanthin as well as more comprehensive formulas developed for eye health and vision support. Stop in and “see” what we have to offer you to protect and support your precious vision.

For updated information on protecting your eyes see our newsletter on Blue Light Safety.