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Yes, diet absolutely can affect outcomes for macular degeneration patients or even prevent the disorder altogether.
Too often, highly common eye disorders like macular degeneration are lumped in with general aging-related vision loss and subsequently swept under the rug, which hurts everyone involved in the patient’s case.
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is not a rite of aging—it’s a separate condition that can be very functionally limiting if not properly addressed.
Speaking of, a person’s lifelong nutritional habits can significantly influence their chance of developing AMD.
Before we dive into this promising vein of research, a quick introduction to the disease itself.
What Is Macular Degeneration?
According to an overview of AMD co-written by HM Diwan Eye Foundation and University of Virginia Medical Center authors, AMD is the most common cause of blindness in developed countries, accounting for 8.7% of blindness across the world.
The physiology behind the disease is highly complicated, involving a “loss of choriocapillaris,” “bruch’s membrane thickening,” and other obscure issues.
Here are the key takeaways:
- AMD involves the degeneration of light-sensing tissue in the central retina.
- As the tissue degrades, patients may experience a loss of central vision, spotty vision loss, blurry vision, and other symptoms.
- Like many diseases, AMD risk can be connected to race, lifestyle, and other factors (outside of age).
As for the role of nutrition, a growing range of studies are proving time and time again that key nutrients and general dietary habits can significantly influence AMD risk.
General Nutritional Habits and AMD Risk Level
Researchers have collectively uncovered a long list of individual nutrients with anti-AMD benefits, and we’ll cover several below, but it’s easier to first outline popular diets that do a good job incorporating them.
For example, the Mediterranean diet was shown in this review of eighteen studies authored by the University of Auckland in New Zealand to decrease the risk of AMD progression.
The authors also correlated traditional Asian diet patterns negatively with AMD prevalence.
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the Western diet was associated with increased AMD prevalence.
According to the researchers, high quantities of red meats, processed foods, and vegetable oils are responsible for this trend, as they decrease the omega-3/omega-6 fatty acid ratio.
Conversely, Asian and Mediterranean diet patterns tend to have far more omega-3 fatty acids incorporated in the form of plant-based compounds and oily fish.
Also, the authors found that high-glycemic dieting, i.e., the regular overconsumption of sugary foods, was associated with increased risk of developing AMD.
Finally, alcohol consumption (greater than two drinks a day) was also associated with increased AMD risk.
Spotlight on Key Anti-AMD Nutrients
Whether or not they fit into a popular diet plan like those mentioned above, several nutrients have been strongly suggested in research to help prevent or slow the progression of age-related macular degeneration in some way.
The National Eye Institute has conducted two major trials, the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) and a similarly structured sequel, AREDS 2, both of which closely examine the risk factors associated with age-related macular degeneration.
Here’s what the trials found regarding dietary connections to AMD risk:
- Dietary zinc intake is inversely related to early and/or late AMD onset.
- Vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene and copper can significantly delay or completely prevent progression to advanced AMD.
- Antioxidants like lutein and zeaxanthin are generally thought to help with other forms of the disease, but when added to the ARED formulation, had no noticeable effects on staving off late-onset AMD.
Outside of the AREDS or AREDS2 formulas, which are multivitamins formulated with the above ingredients to provide potent anti-AMD benefits, you can find these nutrients in the following foods:
- Sweet corn
- Egg yolks
- Bell peppers
- Citrus fruits
- Brussel sprouts
Even though this is just a tiny sample of the hundreds of foods containing these nutrients, it is often difficult to reach recommended levels without a targeted, concentrated supplement.
Diet isn’t the only factor that can affect AMD onset, however.
As usual, exercise plays an important role.
It may seem like an obscure connection, exercising for eye health, but don’t think of it as a direct connection (what kind of lift would that be, anyway?).
Instead, think of the more all-encompassing benefits of exercise, like strengthening your heart, reducing stress, etc.
Specifically, it’s the ability of regular exercise to exert a protective effect over oxidative stress, much like antioxidant foods can, that helps prevent AMD.
In this study from the University of Melbourne Center for Eye Research, researchers found connections between “frequent (three or more times/week) and less frequent (1-2 times/week) vigorous exercise” and lower rates of intermediate and late AMD.
Put simply, poor diet and aging can throw off the body’s balance of reactive oxygen species (ROS, or free radicals) to antioxidants, which raises the risk of AMD and other conditions.
Exercise can help restore the balance, but consistency and safety are highly important.
Diet is most definitely important for AMD patients, but the paradox is that it’s most important long before the AMD develops.
A healthy diet rich in antioxidants (especially lutein and zeaxanthin), beta carotene, zinc, and the other nutrients listed above can reduce the risk of AMD and possibly slow its progression, but it’s very important to start this habit early in life and maintain it.
We’ve said it in so many other contexts, and we’ll say it again: the more nutritionally diverse your diet is, the less you have to worry about constantly tracking anti-AMD nutrients.
Finally, regular exercise—even a brisk walk every other day—can significantly reduce the risk of developing AMD as well.
Put the two together, and your likelihood of developing a litany of issues is seriously reduced.