Age-Related Macular Degeneration

By Bonnie Jenkins, Advanced Natural Wellness

If age related macular degeneration is a concern of yours and you want sharp eyesight; you probably already know that beta-carotene is essential for protecting the retina (the part of the eye that converts light and images into nerve impulses) and guarding against night blindness. But, before you start mega-dosing on carrots, know this: Beta-carotene isn’t a lone ranger. Antioxidants also play a major role in eye health, particularly lutein and zeaxanthin.

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Research shows that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can protect your eyes against age-related macular degeneration (ARMD), the leading cause of blindness in older Americans. Age Related Macular Degeneration involves the gradual destruction of the macula, the part of the retina responsible for the clear, sharp central vision needed for tasks like driving and reading. Currently, 1.75 million Americans over age 40 suffer from Age Related Macualr Degeneration, but experts predict that number will mushroom as baby boomers get older. Who’s most at risk? Caucasian women and people with light-colored eyes.

Symptoms include blind spots or blurred vision that becomes progressively worse. The problem is that Age Related Macular Degeneration advances very slowly, often taking years to develop. Many people don’t even know they have it until it’s at the intermediate stage, putting them at high risk for blindness.

Recent research has studied people with healthy eyes and found that certain antioxidant-rich foods can help protect your vision from this dreaded disease. In the study, Dutch scientists monitored 4,170 adults for eight years. They compared changes in the eye health of participants to their dietary intake of vitamins C and E, beta-carotene and zinc. Not surprisingly, those who ate the most fruits, vegetables and whole grains lowered their risk of Age Related Macular Degeneration. What was surprising was how much protection these foods provided – those who ate the most fruits, vegetables and whole grains had a 35 percent lower risk of blindness compared to those who ate the least.

So, which foods offer the most protection? Orange and yellow fruits and veggies like apricots, red peppers, sweet potatoes and yes, carrots, are an excellent source of beta-carotene. But you can also get a good dose of this eye-saving carotenoid from kale and spinach. Nuts, seeds and whole grains are wonderful sources of vitamin E, while citrus fruits and cruciferous vegetables provide good amounts of vitamin C. Zinc can be found in beans as well as lean beef, pork and chicken.

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Don’t think you getting enough of these sight-saving nutrients from your diet? Fortunately, you can augment the nutrients you get from food with supplements. The famous Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) also found that a mix of several antioxidant nutrients – vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, selenium and zinc – could significantly delay the progression of disease in people already diagnosed. In the study, participants taking these nutrients via high-dose supplements reduced their risk of developing advanced ARMD by 25 percent. The supplements also worked in people who already had advanced Age Related Macular Degeneration in one eye or intermediate disease in both eyes.

Beyond Beta-Carotene

Two critical nutrients – lutein and zeaxanthin – weren’t included in AREDS because researchers have only recently realized how important they are to eye health. These two carotenoids are responsible for some of the vibrant colors in fruits and vegetables. They also happen to be naturally present in the retina, where they act like “sunglasses,” screening out ultraviolet rays and preventing damage to cells in the eye by acting as antioxidants. In fact, they may have had a lot to do with the positive results of the Dutch study, even though intake of these carotenoids wasn’t formally measured.

Known as carotenoid xanthophylls, the levels of lutein and zeaxanthin in our eyes – while abundant in our youth – decrease as we age. But researchers have also found that older folks with higher concentrations of these nutrients in the macula have much better odds of avoiding Age Related Macular Degeneration. Harvard researchers report that people eating the most lutein and zeaxanthin – an average of 5.8 mg. per day – had a 57 percent lower risk of developing macular degeneration compared with people eating the least. Lutein is found in particularly high concentrations in collards, kale, and spinach. Zeaxanthin is also richly concentrated in the eye, but, unlike lutein, it’s far more elusive in our diets.

Although these two carotenoids are usually lumped together, let’s see what they do separately. In one double-blind study of people with Age Related Macualr Degeneration, supplementing with 10 mg. of lutein a day for one year significantly improved their vision compared to those taking a placebo. Better yet, lutein was beneficial for people with both early and advanced stages of the disease. And because lutein filters out UV rays, cataract risk also dropped by up to 65 percent in those who ate spinach and other greens five or more times per week. Just be aware that vitamin A and lutein compete for absorption in the body, so they should be taken separately.

While zeaxanthin also helps protect the eye from UV damage and prevents free-radical damage to the retina and the lens of the eye, a clinical trial from the University of Southampton in the U.K. shows that this nutrient may be even more important than lutein. Zeaxanthin is found in the center of the macula – the most critical area for central vision with the greatest need for protection. This carotenoid also protects the eye from sun damage more effectively than lutein – probably because zeaxanthin’s chemical structure makes it a much more effective antioxidant than lutein.

Although both of these nutrients are critical to healthy vision, they work best when taken together. How well do they protect your eyesight? Researchers at Arizona State University compared the macular pigment density and visual sensitivity of 27 seniors, age 60 to 84, with 10 people between the age of 24 and 36. Results showed that the older folks who had high blood levels of lutein and zeaxanthin had visual sensitivity comparable to the younger subjects.

To make sure that you’re getting enough lutein and zeaxanthin, look for an eye supplement that contains at least 6 mg. of lutein and at least 5 mg. of zeaxanthin. Since both nutrients are fat-soluable, make sure to take the supplement with foods that contain some fat.

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One Last Thing …

Researchers have also discovered genetic links to eye disease, particularly for Age Related Macular Degeneration. Now, they may have pinpointed the gene. The gene produces a protein called complement factor H, which triggers the formation of drusen, a substance composed of fats, protein and cell waste that is present in large amounts in people with Age Related Macular Degeneration. Indeed, drusen is often the first sign of the disease, though only your doctor can detect it. As with all genetic diseases, however, not everyone who has the gene will develop Age Related Macular Degeneration. Much depends on your lifestyle, diet and general health practices. Here’s what might help save your sight:

-Don’t smoke. Nicotine limits the amount of oxygen in your bloodstream and creates free radicals; your eyes suffer because of both.

-Keep high blood pressure under control. Limit processed foods, which are typically high in sodium.

-Limit exposure to ultraviolet light. Wear sunglasses and a hat when outdoors.

-Get regular eye exams.

This Just In …

If an intense workout has left you with a bad case of sore muscles, try drinking a cup of coffee or green tea. According to a new study in the Journal of Pain, caffeine can relieve the pain that sets in a day or two after exercise injury.

The study involved nine female college students who didn’t drink a lot of caffeine and didn’t participate in regular intense exercise. After being tested for leg muscle strength and pain sensation during strong leg muscle contractions, the students’ leg muscles were “damaged” in a way similar to what would occur during intense exercise. Over the next two days, the women exercised before and then one hour after taking either caffeine equal to two cups of coffee or a placebo. After taking the caffeine, the students experienced a 48 percent drop in pain compared to the placebo.

So the next time you find yourself hurting after too much physical activity, reach for the coffee pot instead of the aspirin.


Age-Related Eye Disease Study Research Group. “A randomized, placebo-controlled, clinical trial of high-dose supplementation with vitamins C and E, beta carotene, and zinc for age-related macular degeneration and vision loss: AREDS report no. 8.” Archives of Ophthalmology. 2001;119:1417-1436.

Hammond BR Jr, et al. Preservation of visual sensitivity of older subjects: association with macular pigment density. Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science. 1998 Feb;39(2):397-406.

Maridakis V, O’Connor PJ, Dudley GA, et al. “Caffeine attenuates delayed-onset muscle pain and force following eccentric exercise.” Journal of Pain. 2007; 8:237-243.

Richer S, Stiles W, Statkute L, et al. Double-masked, placebo-controlled, randomized trial of lutein and antioxidant supplementation in the intervention of atrophic age-related macular degeneration: the Veterans LAST study (Lutein Antioxidant Supplementation Trial). Optometry. 2004;75:216-230.

Seddon JM, Ajani UA, Sperduto RD, et al. Dietary carotenoids, vitamins A, C, and E, and advanced age-related macular degeneration. Journal of the American Medical Association. 1994:272:1413–20.

van Leeuwen R, Boekhoorn S, Vingerling JR, et al. “Dietary intake of antioxidants and risk of age-related macular degeneration.” Journal of the American Medical Association. 2005;294:3101-3107

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