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Healthy Aging

How to Protect Your Vision Against Macular Degeneration as You Age

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 06/21/2011
Last Updated: 08/10/2012

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Since last week when I wrote about being part of the , I can't seem to get my own parents, and their advancing age, out of my mind. And having just spent four days with my 80-year-old mom made it sink in even more. While she's lucky not to be suffering from any major illness like Alzheimer's, cancer, diabetes or cardiovascular disease, there is one major impediment to her everyday enjoyment of life: she has age-related macular degeneration, a disease that gradually destroys vision and is caused by the deterioration of the central portion of the retina, known as the macula. It's this portion, in the inside back layer of the eye, that records the images we see and sends them (via the optic nerve) from the eye to the brain.

My mother can no longer decipher a newspaper, book or label. She is stripped of the ability to enjoy the variety of colors in sunsets, admire the details that shine in artistic creations or marvel over the fine nuances of her great-grandchildren's ever-changing features as they morph from infancy into toddlerhood. She can no longer sit behind the wheel of a car but must be relegated to the passenger seat, and quite often she sees the world through a haze of wavy lines and hallucinations of geometric shapes.

More than 10 million Americans are affected by macular degeneration. Scary, since it's no longer just our parents who are getting sidelined with the disease: it's the leading cause of blindness for people aged 55 and older. As the baby boomer population ages, so will the rate of people who are affected with macular degeneration. While the exact causes are not known, what is known is that age increases the chances of contracting the condition.

Each year when I visit my ophthalmologist, I remind her of my mother's deteriorating sight, aware that there could be a genetic link. "Is there anything I should be doing?" I ask, hoping that her answer will change from the one she gave me the year before (that is, eating a well-balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruits and veggies, keeping current with my annual checkups, not smoking and staying active). It all makes me feel so helpless and out of control; after all, the condition is downright frightening. Though treatable with drugs and/or surgery, it is not reversible.

But this morning, right after driving my mother home, I came back to my office and came upon some encouraging new information about vision loss and nutrition. (When something is not curable, any bit of new information takes on the label of "encouraging," no?) Several nutrients, including zinc and omega-3 fatty acids, were linked to a lower risk of developing macular degeneration in the people who ate the highest amounts in their diets, researchers found.

When the researchers studied people over age 55 who had one of the two genes contributing to macular degeneration, they found that for one type of gene variation, people who got the most zinc, beta carotene, omega-3 fatty acids or lutein/xeaxanthin in their diets were less likely to develop the condition than the people who had low intake of those nutrients. And for those who had the other type of gene variation, two nutrients—zinc and omega-3—were associated with a lower risk.

There's no need to eat huge amounts, either: the government-recommended daily allowances are sufficient. That's 1.1 grams of omega-3s and 8 milligrams of zinc daily (for women). The amounts for men are a bit higher.

What foods are high in zinc? Oysters, red meat, toasted wheat germ, dark chocolate and cocoa powder, nuts and beans.

What foods are high in omega-3 fatty acids? Flaxseeds, walnuts, scallops and oily fish like salmon, sardines, halibut and tuna.

What foods are high in beta carotene? Carrots, sweet potatoes, broccoli, spinach, green peppers, apricots and cantaloupe.

What foods are high in lutein and zeaxanthin? Eggs, leafy greens, Brussels sprouts, kale and collard greens.

This matters: If you're older than 50 and have noticed a change in your central vision, see your ophthalmologist. There are two tests—aside from your normal eye exam—that can be performed. In one, you look at a checkerboard like grid, called an Amsler grid. One eye is covered as you look with your other eye at a black dot in the center. If the lines are wavy or missing, this could signal a problem. Another test, which can pinpoint leaky blood vessels in your eye by injecting a dye into your arm and taking pictures as the dye reaches the blood vessels in the retina, may be performed as well.

This also matters: It's good, no matter who you are or how old you are, to get plenty of these highly nutritious foods. Your whole body—not just your eyes—will thank you.

Other reading you might like:

Macular Degeneration


Very informative post. I've recently encountered some age related issues with my eye that caused some temporary blurring and it really made me appreciate my eyesight. It's good to know that healthy foods can help protect us from this sad condition. And, dark chocolate doesn't hurt either! ;)

So many of us do take our eyesight for granted...until something happens to threaten it. You are so right about that. Enjoy your dark chocolate, LL!

Oh, I'll just eat an oyster every day. Just kidding! Actually, I do eat one organic carrot every day, before dinner, and take zinc, as well as Omega-3. I fear this, too. My mom had it. Another favorite activity she had to give up, besides reading, was looking at old photographs of family .... Thanks for the warnings. Glad to learn I'm doing something right because I surely have the genes for Macular Degeneration, too.

Sounds like you are already doing so many of the right things, Alexandra.

thanks for this good and helpful information, Sheryl. relieved to know that many of the foods I eat regularly are on these lists.

one question: I thought corn was also high in lutein and zeaxanthin, but it's not your your list, so, is that not true?


You are right about corn. I should have pointed out that my list was far from a complete list; there are many more foods included in each category. Thanks for pointing that out.

I worry about my vision too. Both parents had cataracts (and my mom's surgery was botched). My dad had retinal detachment as well. I recently made the decision to stop going to my local eye shop and become a patient with a well known eye Dr in our area just in case I have problems down the line. I didn't know about macular degeneration - sounds scary! Thanks for the info

I think that's a good, take-charge decision on your part. It can never hurt to put ourselves in the best hands that we can.

what a wonderful article..I will take all this information to heart..and nothing was hard to implement..so important. thank you!!!

Thank you, Nora, for your feedback. It's readers like you that make me want to continue to relay important information!

I get crabby when my glasses get a little scratched or dirty and I cannot see perfectly. This kind of vision loss terrifies me. Thanks for the insights.

Wow, that is so sad about your mom! I don't know what I would do if I couldn't read anymore or just see well.

Thanks for the tips on eye health...I take omega-3 supplements already, on the advice of my optometrist to prevent dry eye.

My grandpa had macular degeneration too. I have been eating as you suggest here. I hope it really does help!

Didn't know of the dietary connection here, and I'm an eye doctor's daughter. Thanks for all the info.

Love love love this story, partly because my mom has mac degeneration, so I'm sort of looking ahead for myself. And also because you give *specific things on how to stave it off or reduce the risk.

Oh, hooray! Another reason to eat dark chocolate!

My grandmother has macular degeneration too. And my vision is awful to begin with. I try to eat my carrots, even though they're not my favorite. But hey, I'm good at eating my daily fill of dark chocolate.

My mother developed macular degeneration in her eighties, and there is an even bigger problem with it on my husband's side of the family. His sister is already severely limited and she is just in her mid fifties. I'm going to forward this to him and hope it will influence his eating habits.

Our ophthalmologist encourages his patients to take eye vitamins. Glaucoma is another eye disease to be wary of as we age. Yearly visits for pressure checks is the best way to keep on top of it.

I have macular degeneration and I'm 36... For me, it was not really progressive; it came and settled very quickly.

It is really terrifying for me because I always had perfect sight and never needed glasses, I'm not used to seeing blurry! Apparently it comes from my other condition (I also have lupus). For now, only one eye is affected, which I guess is great news.

I'm certainly going to cook some salmon and spinach tonight! Thanks for the tip!!! Because apparently (even a lot of) dark chocolate doesn't work for me!

I've just recently completed one of my projects due to the information from this post.keep up the excellent quality writing,it is rare to see a nice blog like this one today.


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