Macular degeneration is a disease that damages the eyes and causes vision loss. It is often referred to as age-related or adult macular degeneration (AMD). It is a common cause of severe visual impairment in Americans, affecting over 15 million people. There is no cure for AMD, and treatment is somewhat limited.
The macula is the central part of the retina of the eye that makes it possible to see the fine detail needed for reading, driving, and recognizing faces. AMD causes the macula to malfunction or deteriorate. The result is loss of sight in the center of the visual field.
Although the cause of AMD is unknown, it is thought to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
AMD is more common in women and older adults. It is also more common in those of Asian or Caucasian descent. Other factors that may increase your risk of developing AMD include:
The increased presence of free radicals may also increase the risk for macular degeneration. Free radicals are naturally produced when your body processes food for energy. They can also result from other oxidative stresses on the body, such as exposure to ultraviolet rays of the sun, smoking, and environmental pollution. Free radicals are unstable molecules that may cause damage to DNA and other molecules. Over the course of your lifetime, this damage may lead to AMD.
Nutritional supplements have been the focus of much research on the prevention of AMD. Antioxidants are thought to protect cells, in the eye and elsewhere, from free radical damage. High levels of antioxidants are found naturally in fruits and vegetables, as well as in other foods, such as egg yolks, nuts, grains, and some meats. They can also be concentrated in supplements.
Though the benefits of supplementation are often extolled in the media, clinical studies have had inconsistent results. While some studies reveal a link between higher levels of antioxidants and lower risk of AMD, many do not.
A recent review of over 62,000 people in 4 large studies showed that the use of vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin C, lutein, zinc, selenium, or zeaxanthin doesn't prevent or delay the development of AMD. However, a more promising review of over 6,100 people with AMD in 13 studies, showed that the same supplements may delay the progression of the disease. Depending on the study, supplements were taken individually or together.
In the bigger picture, it is difficult to tell how the supplements work across different populations. Taking supplements can also have harmful effects, especially if you take other medications. If you want to take supplements for AMD or any other reason, talk to your doctor before starting them.
Although evidence relating supplements, diet, and AMD is mixed, it is always best to strive to live a healthy lifestyle. Here are some ways to boost your eye health:
American Macular Degeneration Foundation
Macular Degeneration Partnership
Canadian Ophthalmological Society
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
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3/6/2013 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Sui GY, Liu GC, Liu GY, et al. Is sunlight exposure a risk factor for age-related macular degeneration: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Ophthalmol. 2012 Nov 10. [Epub ahead of print].
Last reviewed November 2016 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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