By Bonnie Jenkins, Advanced Natural Wellness
My mom was recently started showing macular degeneration symptoms. It’s a frightening diagnosis, especially since my mother watched as her own grandmother slipped into blindness due to AMD.
But, while family history, gender, and race are all risk factors that made my mother more prone to AMD, she doesn’t need to resign herself to a world that will gradually grow dark. There are things she is doing to fight the disease – and these are steps that anyone can take to slow the progression of AMD or even prevent it in the first place.
Macular Degeneration Symptoms
Age-related macular degeneration gradually destroys sharp, central vision. Central vision is needed for seeing objects clearly and for common daily tasks such as reading and driving. It targets the macula, which is located in the center of the retina. The retina – the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye – instantly converts light and images into electrical impulses. The retina then sends these impulses to the brain.
The good news is that AMD isn’t painful. The bad news is that it can sneak up on you over many years. In some cases, AMD advances so slowly that people notice little change in their vision. In others, the disease progresses faster and may lead to a loss of vision in both eyes. In fact, AMD is a leading cause of vision loss in the over-60 set.
To complicate things, AMD comes in two forms: wet and dry. Wet AMD occurs when abnormal blood vessels behind the retina start to grow under the macula. These new blood vessels tend to be very fragile and often leak blood and fluid. The blood and fluid raise the macula from its normal place at the back of the eye. Damage to the macula – and the loss of central vision – often occurs very rapidly. An early symptom of wet AMD is that straight lines appear wavy. If you notice this condition or other changes to your vision, contact your eye care professional at once. You need a comprehensive dilated eye exam.
Dry AMD, on the other hand, occurs when the light-sensitive cells in the macula slowly break down, gradually blurring central vision in the affected eye. As dry AMD gets worse, you may see a blurred spot in the center of your vision. Over time, as less of the macula functions, central vision is gradually lost in the affected eye. The most common symptom of dry AMD is slightly blurred vision. You may have difficulty recognizing faces or need more light for reading and other tasks. Of course, these can also be signs of the normal vision loss that can come with age, so see your eye doctor to rule out AMD.
The greatest risk factor for both types of AMD is age. Studies show that people over age 60 are clearly at greater risk than other age groups. And the risk jumps significantly in those over age 75. While there are some risk factors you can’t do anything about, your lifestyle choices can make a big difference in your chances of developing this potentially devastating disease. Obesity, smoking, a poor diet, and lack of exercise can all boost your risk.
On the flip side, maintaining a healthy weight, keeping a lid on your blood pressure, not smoking, eating a diet rich in fish and dark leafy greens, as well as a regular exercise routine can all lower your risk. But there are even more specific steps you can take to maintain healthy vision as you age.
When you hear the word “homocysteine,” you probably think heart health. But it turns out that high blood levels of this amino acid have also been linked to a greater risk for age-related macular degeneration. And, the same homocysteine-lowering supplements that help your heart can also tame AMD.
According to a seven-year clinical trial involving 5,442 women, taking a combination of vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and folic acid decreases the risk of AMD. The researchers randomly assigned the women to receive either the supplements or a placebo. Those in the supplement group were 34 percent less likely to develop AMD and, among those who did develop the disease, there was a 41 percent lower risk for significantly impaired vision.
But there’s no instant karma when you take these supplements. The benefits didn’t emerge until two years after the study began. Yet, according to the researchers, this study is “the strongest evidence to date in support of a possible beneficial effect of folic acid and B vitamin supplements in AMD prevention.”
So, how much should you take to ramp up your protection against AMD? The study used relatively low amounts, but most health professionals recommend a daily dose of 50 mg. of vitamin B6, 100 mcg. of B12, and 400 mcg. of folic acid.
Watch Your Carbs
The quality of the carbohydrates you eat may also affect your risk for AMD and its associated vision loss. New research from Tufts University has confirmed a link between the glycemic index and the risk of AMD. In fact, people who consumed diets with a higher glycemic index than average for their gender and age group were at greater risk of developing advanced AMD.
The glycemic index is a scale applied to foods based on how quickly their carbohydrates are converted to blood sugar (glucose). Foods like white rice, pasta, and bread have a high glycemic index and are associated with a faster rise and subsequent drop in blood sugar. Whole grains, on the other hand, have a low glycemic index. These are often considered “higher quality” carbohydrates, because they have less of a rollercoaster effect on blood sugar.
In the new study, which was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the Tufts scientists analyzed data from nearly 5,000 participants in the nationwide Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS). Detailed dietary histories were obtained at the start of the study, when participants were 55 to 80 years old, with varying degrees of AMD. What the researchers found was that 20 percent of advanced AMD cases might have been prevented if those subjects had eaten a diet with a glycemic index below the average for their age and gender.
The lesson here? Toss white foods, including refined sugar, white rice, pasta, and bread. Instead, try low glycemic sweeteners like agave syrup. And stock up on whole wheat or multi-grain versions of rice, pasta, and baked goods.
One Last Thing …
Don’t forget the two nutritional mainstays in the fight against AMD – lutein and zeaxanthin. Harvard researchers reported that people eating the most lutein and zeaxanthin – an average of 5.8 mg. per day – had a 57 percent decreased risk of macular degeneration, compared with people eating the least.
But food may not be your best source to get high levels of these two eye-protecting nutrients – especially if you already suffer from AMD. In a double-blind study of people with macular degeneration, supplementing with 10 mg. of lutein per day for one year significantly improved vision, compared with a placebo. But even 6 mg. of lutein each day was beneficial for people with both early and advanced stages of the disease. Look for a supplement that combines both lutein and zeaxanthin.
Research Brief …
If you’re a man looking to reduce your risk of prostate cancer, simply taking a zinc supplement may do the trick. New evidence from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center shows that the long-term consumption of zinc supplements reduces the risk of advanced prostate cancer.
Healthy prostate tissue contains 10 times more zinc than other soft tissues in the body. But prostate cancer cells lose this ability to concentrate the mineral. This lead the Fred Hutchinson team to hypothesize that prostate cancer risk could be lowered by increased zinc intake. To prove their theory, they evaluated data from 35,242 men between the ages of 50 to 76 who participated in the VITamins and Lifestyle (VITAL) study. Each of the men completed questionnaires about their diet and the supplements they took over the past 10 years. They also gave a comprehensive health history. The participants were then tracked for four years, during which time 832 of the men developed invasive prostate cancer.
After analyzing all of the data, the researchers found that long-term supplementation with more than 15 mg. of zinc daily didn’t reduce the general risk of developing prostate cancer. But it did significantly lower the risk of advanced prostate cancer. And the risk was reduced even more in the men who ate lots of vegetables.
If you’re at risk of prostate cancer – either by virtue of your age or because of family history or other risk factors – make sure you’re getting enough supplemental zinc. If your multivitamin doesn’t contain at least 15 mg., find one that does. And don’t forget to eat those veggies!
Chiu CJ, Hubbard LD, Armstrong J, et al. “Dietary glycemic index and carbohydrate in relation to early age-related macular degeneration.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2006;83:880-886.
Christen WG, Glynn RJ, Chew EY, et al. “Folic Acid, Pyridoxine, and Cyanocobalamin Combination Treatment and Age-Related Macular Degeneration in Women: The Women’s Antioxidant and Folic Acid Cardiovascular Study.” Archives of Internal Medicine. 2009;169:335-341.
Gonzalez A, Peters U, Lampe JW, et al. “Zinc intake from supplements and diet and prostate cancer.” Nutrition and Cancer. 2009;61:206-215.
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