There is no permanent cure for age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of vision loss in adults ages 50 and older affecting about 10 million Americans.
In addition to age, smoking and family history, a big risk factor for AMD is a poor diet.
"Patients who eat high-fat, high-cholesterol diets have a higher risk of developing macular degeneration as opposed to people who eat green leafy vegetables, fruits, and foods high in antioxidants," says Malav Joshi, M.D., an ophthalmologist at The Krieger Eye Institute.
A healthy diet consisting of fruits and vegetables and fish high in omega-3 fatty acids is generally recommended for good overall eye health. But Nancy Kunjukunju, M.D., also an ophthalmologist at Krieger, says a heart-healthy diet and lifestyle is even more important for people with a family history of AMD, which causes damage to the macula (a small area near the center of the retina, located on the inside back layer of the eye), inhibiting central vision.
"Good cardiovascular health leads to good eye health," says Kunjukunju. "If you take care of yourself in terms of your cholesterol and everything else, your body does better, your eyes do better."
There are two types of AMD: dry (the most common form) and wet.
With the wet form of AMD, blood vessels under the macula can bleed, leak or hemorrhage and cause an accumulation of fluid. This form of macular degeneration can be treated-;though not cured-;with routine eye injections and possibly laser treatment. "With wet macular degeneration, if you catch it early, you can treat it and the visual outcome is a lot better," Joshi says.
With "dry" AMD, the tissue of the macula gradually thins and breaks down. There currently is no treatment for the dry form; eye care professionals usually recommend antioxidants (or antioxidant supplements) to slow its progression, Kunjukunju says.
"The idea is that your body's producing all these free radicals and things that, as you age, your body cannot just absorb or eliminate, so you need extra antioxidants to grab those free radicals so that hopefully you can eliminate them from your system," Kunjukunju says.
Spinach, kale, salmon and blueberries are among the foods Kunjukunju suggests for eye health nutrition. Nutrients such as vitamin C, zinc, vitamin E and lutein also are linked to a lower risk for eye diseases.
Kunjukunju stresses that antioxidants "are helpful and beneficial in helping to prevent the dry form" of AMD "from becoming the wet form of the disease." Although there is no treatment option for "dry" AMD, the condition is considered the more slowly progressive form of macular degeneration.
"With dry macular degeneration, the damage occurs over a long period of time, years in some cases. With the wet form, you can go blind in a month or two. It can be pretty devastating," Joshi says.
Patients who are considering taking eye vitamins should first discuss the option with an eye care specialist, as they may not be helpful for everyone, Joshi says.