Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is one of the leading causes of blindness among the elderly in the United States. The condition is caused by a deterioration of the central part of the retina, known as the macula. Because this part of the eye is essential in focusing vision, people with macular degeneration find it difficult to read, to sew, or to do other close work that requires seeing details. AMD is most common among people over 60 years old. (Smoking significantly increases the risk of AMD; any smokers worried about this disease should get help quitting.) Medical scientists believe that heredity plays an important role in determining vulnerability to this condition, but studies also hint at nutritional factors. Recent studies, such as the Blue Mountains Eye Study in Australia, have found that carotene compounds called lutein and zeaxanthin are protective.1 Lutein and zeaxanthin are found in green and yellow vegetables, such as corn, but they are also abundant in egg yolks. The latest analysis from Tufts University scientists who have been studying this issue for many years is that diets rich in lutein, zeaxanthin, vitamins C and E, and the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, and low in high-glycemic-index foods (such as white bread, crackers, and pasta), can reduce the risk of AMD progression by approximately 40 percent.2
My wife was diagnosed with macular degeneration, and our ophthalmologist said it would just get worse. We immediately started taking bilberry fruit capsules because I wanted to be proactive. A year later, we returned for her annual eye exam. The doctor’s assistant administered the exams. After checking my wife three times, she took her folder to the doctor and told him in front of us that the assistant last year sure messed up the exam. The doctor replied, “I administered that exam myself, and I know it is proper.” The assistant exclaimed that the macular degeneration was only blocking 25 percent of vision instead of 45 percent like last year, and that was impossible. The doctor asked what we had done, and I told him about taking bilberry. When my wife passed away three years later at age 82, she no longer had macular degeneration.
Bilberry has a reputation for being good for eyesight. There has been very little research on its power to slow or to reverse macular degeneration in human beings, but there are some intriguing data involving animals.
I have recently been diagnosed with macular degeneration. My husband read that the herb bilberry is good for the eyes. I worry, though, that it might interact with any or all of my medicines: Pacerone, Coumadin, and Premarin. Would it be safe for me to try bilberry?
The idea that bilberry fruit is beneficial to the eyes is based primarily on folklore. However, one study suggests that bilberry can inhibit the overgrowth of blood vessels.3 Since this is one of the problems that occurs in advanced AMD, it might be a mechanism by which bilberry extract protects the retina from the damage of macular degeneration. Bilberry is not known to interact with medications. Coumadin, however, interacts with many herbs. Ask your doctor to monitor your prothrombin time (a measure of bleeding) more closely if you decide to try this herb in addition to appropriate medical care.
I have been diagnosed with the onset of macular degeneration. The eye doctor said there is no cure. Are there any vitamins or other nutritional supplements that might slow the process down?
Research has shown that several nutritional factors can slow the development of macular degeneration. One significant study, the Age-Related Eye Disease Study, demonstrated that vitamins C and E, together with beta-carotene and the minerals zinc and copper, could slow vision loss.4 Additional studies confirmed that these nutrients can help prevent age-related macular degeneration.5 Research shows that people who eat more fish are less susceptible to AMD, presumably because of the omega-3 fatty acids in fish.6 Another study found that vitamin D also can reduce the risk of AMD.7 Research also shows that a diet rich in refined carbohydrates, such as sugar and white flour, is not good for the eyes.8 People with diets high on the glycemic index were almost 50 percent more likely to develop advanced macular degeneration.
I’ve seen lutein listed as an ingredient in Centrum and Ocuvite vitamins. What exactly is lutein?
Lutein is a yellow plant pigment, part of the carotenoid family that also includes beta-carotene. Scientists believe that this antioxidant is especially important in the retina of the eye and may help prevent macular degeneration, which can lead to blindness. Vegetables rich in lutein include kale, collard greens, spinach, and Swiss chard.
I have just learned that members of my family have macular degeneration and that it is hereditary. A doctor recommended vitamins with zinc for this condition. How effective are such supplements?
Ophthalmologists have long recommended antioxidant vitamins with zinc for patients at risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). In this condition, the retina deteriorates and central vision needed for reading or driving is gradually lost. One large study demonstrated that for people at risk of AMD, high-dose vitamins with zinc may reduce the likelihood of developing this condition by 25 percent.9 The supplements in the study provided 500 milligrams of vitamin C, 400 IU of vitamin E, 15 milligrams of beta-carotene, 80 milligrams of zinc, and 2 milligrams of copper.
Joe Graedon & Terry Graedon, The People’s Pharmacy: Quick & Handy Home Remedies, published by National Geographic