Preventing Eye Disease

Words: Dr Richard FIRSHEIN 

Recent medical research indicates that specific antioxidants, such as lutein, can lower the risk of eye disease, and prevent macular degeneration, cataracts, and glaucoma from occurring.

Macular degeneration is a process that obstructs vision by damaging the fragile capillaries in the eye. It is the leading cause of blindness among people over age 60. Millions suffer from age-related macular degeneration [AMD]; up to 37 per cent of people over the age of 75 have some form of AMD, and by age 80, 25 per cent will have lost eyesight due to this disease.

AMD occurs when the tiny vessels in the back of the eye are weakened, allowing blood to seep out and leaving the eye defenceless to damage from the sun’s powerful rays. This can cause a dark spot that blocks, or blurry lines to distort anything in your field of vision.

AMD isn’t the only threat to aging eyes: think of glaucoma and cataracts too.

Glaucoma

Glaucoma, the most common cause of blindness in all age groups, affects the optic nerve. It usually remains undetected until a significant amount of vision has been lost. Cataracts too are quite common, afflicting two-thirds of individuals over age 70, with the inability to focus.

Unfortunately, even in this age of medical progress, there are no cures for eye disease and resulting blindness. Cataract and laser surgery, for example, benefit only a minority of patients, and although they can delay vision loss, they cannot prevent it.

Indeed, there was little hope for aging eyes — until now. Luckily, we now know that the risk of eye disease can be reduced by controlling one simple factor in our lives: nutrition. Recent medical research indicates that specific antioxidants can lower the risk of eye disease and prevent macular degeneration, cataracts, and glaucoma from occurring. These antioxidants include vitamin E, vitamin C, and an amino acid called taurine.

Lutein Benefits

However, the most important defenders of the eye are a class of compounds called the carotenoids, which include beta-carotene and, most notably, a versatile and potent nutrient known as lutein. Lutein appears to prevent the risk of macular degeneration and other eye illnesses by protecting the fragile back of the eye from harmful blue light. Carotenoids are a group of antioxidants found in concentrated quantities in fruits and vegetables. There are two major classes of carotenoids — the carotenes, including beta-carotene, and the xanthophiles, such as lutein and zeaxanthin. While beta-carotene, which is responsible for the yellow and orange colour of foods, like squash and carrots, is the most famed carotenoid, it is virtually absent in the eye. This is where lutein and zeaxanthin enter the picture.

Age-related macular degeneration occurs when cells break down in the macula, a yellow spot at the centre of the retina that is responsible for our clear, central, or focused vision. This breakdown process slowly and progressively destroys sight in the centre of the field of vision, although it does not affect peripheral vision.

Lutein and zeaxanthin work by accumulating in the macula and screening out harmful blue light that can damage the back of the eye [unlike ultraviolet {UV} light, which can also damage the eye, blue light is part of the visible spectrum, known as the short wave]. Although xanthophiles are found primarily in leafy and green vegetables, especially kale, spinach, peas, lettuce, and broccoli, they are actually yellow and orange in colour, a fact hidden behind the chlorophyll that gives the vegetables their rich, dark hue. By pigmenting the macula, lutein and zeaxanthin act like sunglasses, filtering out destructive rays from the daily onslaught of light waves. They also fight free radicals that threaten to impair our vision.

Risk Factors

  • Age, between 55 and 64; the risk increases as we get older
  • saturated fats and cholesterol; alcohol and smoking
  • Exposure to constant sunlight
  • Heredity and gender. Women over 75 have twice the risk of developing AMD as men of the same age
  • Eye colour. Individuals with light-coloured eyes [blue, or green]
  • High blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.

By taking a full complement of supplements including vitamins C, E, and A, selenium, zinc, taurine, and antioxidants, like lutein and zeaxanthin, as well as eating a healthful diet filled with leafy greens and juicy fruits, you can keep your eyes alert and strong throughout life.

Dosage. For general health: carotenoids, through leafy green vegetables, or supplement/s 5-10mg a day. Special conditions: lutein. For AMD: 20mg a day; for cataract/glaucoma: 5-20mg a day. Speak to your physician, or therapist, for supplements and their doses that suit your individual requirement best.

Dr RICHARD FIRSHEIN, DO, is the Founder-Director of The Firshein Center for Comprehensive Medicine in New York City. He is a leading innovator and authority in the field of preventative and nutritional medicine, integrating Western and Eastern medical practices. He is Board Certified in Family Medicine and has served as professor of family medicine. An internationally recognised leader in the field of integrative medicine and healthy aging, a cancer researcher, prolific author and writer, Dr Firshein has written several ground-breaking books, including the bestselling Reversing AsthmaYour Asthma-Free ChildThe Nutraceutical Revolution and The Vitamin Prescription [For Life]. This article is ©Dr Richard Firshein.

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