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 leading cause of severe visual impairment in Americans. 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. Other factors that may increase your risk of developing AMD include:
- Family history of AMD
- Excessive exposure to sunlight
- Current or former smoker
- Blood vessel damage or health conditions that interfere with blood circulation
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 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.
Living a Healthy Lifestyle
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:
- Eat right—Although the evidence is inconclusive, a diet rich in nutrients may lower your risk of AMD. Try to include antioxidants in your diet by eating a variety of fruits and vegetables. Green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale, and collard greens, are particularly recommended. Eating fish and other foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids may also help to lower your risk of AMD as well as other chronic conditions.
- Quit smoking. Your doctor can help you find a program that will work for you.
- Exercise regularly—Cardiovascular exercise improves the body’s overall health and helps maintain a healthy circulatory system.
- Reduce sun exposure—Always wear a hat when outdoors, and wear sunglasses or protective lenses all year.
- See your doctor—If you have a chronic condition, get proper treatment. Also make sure that you have your eyes examined on a regular basis.
American Macular Degeneration Foundation
Macular Degeneration Partnership
Canadian Ophthalmological Society
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
Age-related macular degeneration. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Available at: https://www.aao.org/eye-health/diseases/amd-macular-degeneration. Accessed September 1, 2013.
Age-related macular degeneration. American Society of Retina Specialists website. Available at: http://www.asrs.org/patients/retinal-diseases/2/agerelated-macular-degeneration. Accessed September 26, 2017.
Age-related macular degeneration. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114486/Age-related-macular-degeneration-AMD. Updated February 10, 2017. Accessed September 26, 2017.
Macular degeneration. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/biomedical-libraries/natural-alternative-treatments.. Updated December 15, 2015. Accessed September 26, 2017.
3/6/2013 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114486/Age-related-macular-degeneration-AMD: 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. 2013;97(4):389-394.
Last reviewed September 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 11/18/2013