What’s the best defense for your vision – food or supplements

© Timscottrom | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

© Timscottrom | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

As with so many ills, the risk of conditions which can rob you of your vision rises with increasing age. And up there at the top of the list is Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of blindness in the elderly. While new treatments are currently being developed, prevention is key. Nutrition plays a major role in both defending against the disease and in slowing the progression of the condition once it has developed.

AMD, both  the prevention and treatment, is a hotbed of research. It’s understandable when you consider our ageing population. The answers, though, are not clear cut.   It may be that what’s used to slow AMD, for example, may be different than the recommendations for preventing it in the first place.

Omega-3 fats are a case in point. Research has shown that a diet rich in these fats is linked to a decreased likelihood of developing AMD but once the condition is present, omega-3s may not play a role in the progression.

Vitamin D is another nutrient being investigated but so far no consensus has been reached.

Other nutrients, though, have been shown to have an impact.  In the large 8-year investigation  in the U.S. known as the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS), a high dose supplement was found to significantly slow AMD from progressing to advanced stages. But the supplement is not for everyone.

The original formulation contains high doses of vitamins C and E, beta carotene and zinc – all of which can have downsides. The dosage of beta carotene, for instance, is linked to an increased risk of lung cancer in smokers and former smokers, those who are actually at the greatest risk of macular degeneration. While a beta carotene –free AREDS formula is available, it’s best to discuss the pros and cons of these supplements with a dietitian or a physician who’s familiar with the issues.

Scientists are assessing the yellowish pigments or carotenoids,  lutein and zeaxanthin, which are found in yellow and green produce, as a possible stand-in for the beta carotene in these formulations.  But while supplement makers may include lutein in various formulations, the verdict is not yet in. Some people may benefit while others may not.  Lutein and and zeaxanthin -rich foods, though, are a definite winner.

Hot off the press is the latest review of  the second part of the  large scale Age-related Eye Disease Study 2 (AREDS2), published in the May 2014 issue of  the journal Current Opinion in Ophthalmology,  where the authors state the following, “Questions remain regarding the AREDS2 study results such as: whether the findings are generalizable to the population as a whole, what is the long-term safety profile of lutein/zeaxanthin supplementation, should other carotenoids be included in AREDS-type supplements, and at what optimal doses?”

In other words, there is still a lot of research to do. When you look at the nutrients contained in many nutritional supplements, you would never know that there might be questions about long term lutein supplementation.  Supplement makers may be waiting for the research on lutein supplements before bringing out even more supplements – but it’s not the kind  of research you might think. It may be marketing data and whether consumers are buying into their promotion, not whether science shows a benefit.

In the meantime, for those who have been diagnosed with AMD, the AREDS formulations are definitely recommended. But both for those with the condition and those looking at prevention strategies,  eating plenty of lutein-rich foods is a pretty powerful weapon to deploy.

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Do you take supplements for your eyes?  Please share in the comment section below.

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Categories: Research Roundup

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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