We take our eyes for granted, yet research shows that 30 million Americans age 40 and older suffer vision loss. In a recent survey conducted by the American Optometric Association, nearly three-fourths (72%) of respondents age 55 and older began noticing changes in their vision between the ages of 40 and 45. According to Elizabeth Somer, registered dietitian and author of Age-Proof Your Body, there is much you can do diet-wise to slow, stop, and possibly even reverse age-related vision loss.
The two main causes of vision loss as we age are cataracts and macular degeneration. Cataracts are a cloudy or opaque area in the normally clear lens of the eye. Symptoms can include dim, blurry, cloudy, or foggy vision. Most cataracts develop in people after age 55. Macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in America. It results from changes in the macula, a portion of the retina that is responsible for clear, sharp vision, and is located at the back of the eye. Common symptoms include a gradual loss in the ability to see objects clearly, distorted vision, loss of color vision, and a dark or empty area appearing in the center of vision.
By far the greatest risk factor for both cataracts and macular degeneration is getting older. Also, smoking increases risk, so don’t smoke or spend time in the presence of other people’s cigarette smoke. While there isn’t much you can do about aging, there is much you can do about what you eat, which can help protect your eyes from damage.
One in every two people still believe that carrots are the best food for eye health, when in fact spinach and other dark leafy greens are the healthiest foods for the eyes because they naturally contain an important nutrient called lutein. Lutein helps eyes protect themselves against certain eye diseases, especially macular degeneration (AMD) or cataracts, cutting risk in half. Lutein and another compound called zeaxanthin concentrate in the macula at the back of the eye and act much like built-in sunglasses. In order to maintain healthy eyes, studies show that we need at least 10 milligrams of lutein each day through daily diet – just one cup of spinach four times a week. You would need to eat 20 cups of celery or 370 baby carrots a day to meet this same goal! Add spinach to salads, use instead of lettuce in sandwiches and wraps, add chopped spinach to soups, lasagna, and casseroles. Other lutein-rich foods include corn, kiwi, pumpkin, red grapes, and green bell peppers.
2. Vitamin C
The retina of the eye stores 20 times more vitamin C than is in the blood, which is a sign that this vitamin is critical to protecting delicate eye tissue from sunlight and damage. In fact, vitamin C helps scoop up free radicals in sunlight before they can damage the lens and retina. Low vitamin C levels have been linked to an increased risk for cataracts, while high vitamin C levels lower risk by up to 83%. Include two or three vitamin C-rich foods in your daily diet, such as oranges, red bell peppers, grapefruit, green peas, cantaloupe, and strawberries. Aim for about 250 milligrams a day from these foods.
Fatty fish, such as salmon, herring, and sardines, are the best sources of the omega-3 fats, especially DHA, which lowers risk for both cataracts and macular degeneration. In one study, people who included lots of DHA-rich foods in their diets had a 35% lower risk for developing macular degeneration. In contrast, red meat appears to raise risk by 50% for vision loss.
This trace mineral matters to the retina. Studies show that supplements slow the progression of macular degeneration only if they include zinc. You don’t need huge amounts, but make sure your multi contains at least 25 milligrams of zinc, and include zinc-rich foods in the diet, such as whole grains and legumes, along with shellfish.
Vision loss is twice as common in people who are overweight, while people who lose weight also lower their risk for macular degeneration. Of course, the more of these tips you can combine the better. For example, a study from Tufts University in Boston found that people who ate lots of fatty fish rich in omega-3s, foods high in vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc, and the carotenoids in spinach and other leafy greens - lutein and zeaxanthin - had significantly lower risks for developing vision loss as they aged. In short, eat right now and see better and sharper down the road. Also, regular comprehensive eye exams, wearing sun glasses, and daily exercise are all important in maintaining eye health.