When your mother told you to eat your vegetables and you’ll grow up big and strong and when she tossed you a piece of fruit instead of a candy bar for a snack, she was setting you up to have healthy eyes for the rest of your life. Let’s face it, as a kid most of us hated veggies. My sister wouldn’t come within a mile of a green pea if she could avoid it. I still can’t stand the sight, smell or even the thought of a brussel sprout. Such was my childhood. But, two studies from the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins University and the School of Public Health at the University of Wisconsin seem to make the point that Mama knew what was good for you.
Both studies looked at dietary habits as part of two long term studies. In the Wilmer study the researchers considered how participants, both men and women, were affected by fish and shellfish consumption when it came to age related macular edema (ARMD/SMD) and in the Wisconsin study researchers looked at an overall healthy diet and its effect on reducing the development of cataracts in women.
The Wilmer study was a population of men and women between 65 and 84 years old. They answered extensive questionnaires about their diet over the most recent one year period. After removing those who had recently made dramatic changes in their diet during the past year, the researchers found that participants who ate one or more servings per week of fish and shellfish that were high in omega-3 fatty acids had a reduced risk of advanced ARMD/SMD as compared to those participants who ate fish or shellfish less regularly. Dr. Susan Bressler, MD, who headed the study, found that elevated consumption of fish and seafood high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as crab and oysters, had a protective effect on the risk of advanced ARMD/SMD. She feels that more research is needed to fully understand the mechanism for this protective effect because it is well known that these fatty acids are highly concentrated in the retina. She recommends that ARMD/SMD patients fully discuss their dietary options with their ophthalmologist. It will be interesting to see how this study compares to the large number of studies that have shown the benefit of omega-3 fatty acids found in seed products such as flax, bilberry, etc.
The University of Wisconsin study looked at the eating habits, lifestyle and health behavior of former participants in the Women’s Health Initiative. Six years after the conclusion of the study participants from three areas nationwide were invited back for photographs of their eyes. What they found was that 20% of the women who scored the lowest in diet scores (had the least healthy diet) had a 150% increase risk for the development of cataracts or for having had cataract surgery. Those women who scored the highest and had diets with the greatest intake in fruits and vegetables and lower intake of fats had a much lower incidence of cataracts.
Fruits and vegetables are high in a compound called lutein. This is another compound found in high concentrations in the retina. Because of its job protecting the retina from light damage, it may also play a role in protecting the lens from the same damage.
The general conclusion from the Wisconsin study was that by changing one’s diet to include more fruits and vegetables one could substantially lower the risk of cataract development. Since men typically have much lower diet scores than women the researchers concluded that men could show a much greater decline in cataract development than was seen in the women of the study by modifying their diet.
So, if you eat more fish and shellfish (deep fried doesn’t count), eat your leafy greens and grab an apple instead of a candy bar you will help your eyes to continue to brightly see the world around you.
(Editor’s note: If you have questions about your eye health e-mail Dr. Barowsky at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll try to answer your questions here at Eye-Q.)