Healthy Q & A: Protecting Eyes Against Vision Loss

Q: I take care of my mom who has lost a lot of her eyesight from macular degeneration.  It’s terrible what she goes through, and I wanted to write to ask if there was anything that I could do to prevent the same thing happening to me.

A: Macular degeneration is the physical breakdown of the part of the eye responsible for detailed, central vision called the macula.  Age-related macular degeneration, also known as AMD, is the leading cause of vision loss and blindness among Americans who are age 65 and older.  The damage to the eye’s macula is caused by oxidation and free radicals which are a natural part of aging.   Damage from sunlight also plays a large factor, as well as other risk factors like high blood pressure and diabetes.

The first line of defense is to protect your eyes from damage in the first place.  The sun’s UV rays have cumulative harmful effects on the eyes, especially people with light colored eyes, who are at a greater risk of macular degeneration.  Wearing sunglasses is an easy way to prevent eye damage from the sun.  People often wear sunglasses during the summer months, but don’t think of it when the weather turns colder.  Sunglasses are as important, if not more so, during winter months when the glare from snow intensifies the sun’s brightness. Sunglasses are necessary on cloudy days as well, since UV rays filter through the clouds.

When buying sunglasses, make sure they say that they protect against UVA and UVB rays. Most people know that it’s important to wear sunglasses but often forget to actually put them on.  Having several pairs helps with this- keeping a pair in your purse and one in each car so you always have a pair handy is a great idea.  There are also sunglasses that are made to go over glasses (if you’re a person who wears glasses instead of contacts) and there are many new and stylish options available in most drug stores.

Next to preventing sun damage in the eyes, the greatest weapon available to fight against macular degeneration is antioxidants.  The most important antioxidants for eye health is lutein, a supplement that’s related to vitamin A.  Lutein has been the subject of countless studies showing its benefit to eye health and preventing vision loss.  Amazingly, lutein has been found in studies not only to prevent macular degeneration, but to help with improving vision in people suffering from age related macular degeneration (or AMD).  In one study, conducted at the Medical Center Eye Clinic in North Chicago, patients with AMD were given 10 mg of lutein or placebo for 12 months found that the group who took lutein had improved visual function.  In another study, published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, patients with cataracts and AMD were given 15 mg of lutein along with a small amount of vitamin E. Cataracts patients were measured for visual acuity, glare sensitivity, and contrast sensitivity, while AMD patients were tested for visual acuity.  At the end of the study, cataracts patients improved by 40-50 percent and the AMD patients exhibited stabilized or improved vision. None of the patients experienced side effects and all reported improved vision.

One important thing to mention when looking for a lutein supplement is making sure it’s a high enough dose.  At grocery stores, the eye supplement that is the number one seller in America only has 2 mg of lutein.  While 2 mg of lutein certainly won’t hurt to take, all the studies I’ve read talk about taking at least 10 milligrams of lutein per day.  There are lots of supplements sold today that have the same problem, a product may be well known because of advertizing, but often the ingredients that are in them aren’t high enough to be a therapeutic dose.  If you’re taking a supplement, don’t you want to make sure there are enough of the beneficial ingredients to really make a difference?

With eye health (and every other part of health) an ounce of prevention truly is worth a pound of cure. If you haven’t yet experienced the beginnings of degenerative eye problems like AMD, first be thankful, and second, make a point to reduce your risk factors- wearing sunglasses and taking a high antioxidant multivitamin can make a big difference.  Healthy eating with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables can make a significant difference as well.  We truly are what we eat, and it’s important to give the body good fuel to make new cells and prevent disease.  Finally, make sure to see the eye doctor every year for a check-up, since it’s much easier to address a problem when it’s just beginning than when you've actually started to notice a worsening in your vision.