Cataracts form when the eye’s lens becomes cloudy, leading to blurred vision and vision loss. Cataracts happen because the lens of the eye is made up mostly of water and protein. As we age, the protein begins to clump together, creating the cloudy effect on the lens.
Most cataracts are related to aging and are very common in older people. By age 80, more than half of all Americans either have a cataract or have had cataract-removal surgery, according to statistics compiled by the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). In addition, almost 22 million Americans have cataracts in at least one eye, and the number is expected to increase to 30 million by 2020.
OK, so now that we know what AMD and cataracts are, let’s look at which nutrients AREDS and AREDS2 found helpful in addressing these eye diseases.
The first study, AREDS, examined whether taking vitamins E and C, zinc, and beta-carotene, which makes carrots orange, reduced the onset of these diseases.
For AREDS2, the NEI scientists added omega-3 fatty acids and the antioxidants lutein (pronounced LOO-teen) and zeaxanthin (zee-ah-ZAN-thin), both of which are abundant in spinach, kale, and other leafy green vegetables. Both of these antioxidants are also present in the macula.
In addition to being antioxidants, which are molecules that help maintain the health of cells, lutein and zeaxanthin are carotenoids. Carotenoids are what give plant foods their colors.
Lutein is especially important because it gives the macula its yellow pigment. When this pigment degenerates, causes of this degeneration include aging, a poor diet, smoking, being a female, and having blue eyes, the macula degenerates, too, because the protection the pigment supplies gets lost. It’s like a dark, polarized sunglass lens getting replaced by a clear lens on a bright, sunny day.
Now let’s go back to the studies and their findings.
Contrary to the preliminary results of AREDS, the AREDS2 results show that taking vitamins E and C, beta-carotene, zinc, and the omega-3s had no effect on decreasing the onset or reducing the effects of either disease.
However, there were significant reductions in AMD from lutein and zeaxanthin.
Moreover, when beta-carotene was removed from the study, the scientists found that the AMD-reducing effects provided by lutein and zeaxanthin doubled.
Sorry, Mom. Sorry, Bugs.
AREDS2 also found that neither lutein nor zeaxanthin prevented cataracts from forming. But that’s not to say that there are not foods that help prevent cataracts. A 1993-2009 study conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford in England found that vegetarians and vegans were less likely than meat eaters to develop cataracts, vegetarians 30 percent less likely, vegans 40 percent, and that the more meat people ate, the greater the likelihood they would develop cataracts.
But let’s say you’re a young whippersnapper who hates carrots and spinach. You are years away from getting cataracts, and you spend more time thinking about getting MDMA than AMD.
We can hear you now:
“Dude. Why should I care about this? My vision’s 20/20. I’m sticking with the four major non-food groups: doughnuts, candy bars, 64-ounce sodas, and cigarettes!”
Go ahead, knock yourself out. But remember Dud, uh, Dude, what you eat now affects your eyes today and in the future.
Keep eating junk food and smoking cigarettes, and you could be setting yourself up for type 2 diabetes.
Almost 400 million people around the world have diabetes, and 25 million of them are Americans, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA). Close to half of all American diabetics have some form of diabetic retinopathy, which, after macular degeneration, is the second leading cause of blindness of people in the U.S. Also, people with diabetes get cataracts earlier, and diabetics are 60 percent likelier to get cataracts than non-diabetics, the ADA states.
Type 2 diabetes used to be known as adult-onset diabetes, but the number of children and adolescents who have this type of diabetes has greatly increased during the past 20 years. Consequently, the name of the disease has changed to reflect this appalling reality.
But if you eat a diet rich in (you know what’s coming) fruits and vegetables, that will not only improve your chances of maintaining good vision but improve your overall health, too.
And that’s what’s up, doc.