Problems with vision are set to double in Britain in the next 15 years thanks to our ageing population. With the number of sufferers predicted to rise from 2 to 4 million and controversy growing over the availability of the conventional drugs able to help it is more important than ever that we are well informed about how to look after our eyes.
Here we turn the spotlight on the most common eye condition for the over 50s – age-related macular degeneration – and focus on a supplement that may be able to help.
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD)
There are at least 26,000 new cases of AMD in the UK each year, each of which has a devastating effect on the sufferer’s life. The condition can lead to a loss of independence which can cause a patient to become housebound and eventually depressed.
AMD affects the macula, a small area located in the centre of the retina - the delicate tissue which converts light entering the eye into images and sends them to the brain. The macula is responsible for what we see straight in front of us, allowing us to view fine detail such as reading and writing and to see colour. In later life the delicate cells of the macula can become damaged and stop working, making it difficult for sufferers to read, drive or recognise faces.
There are two types of the condition:
- Dry AMD, the most common form, is caused by a slow breakdown of light sensitive cells in the macula. Central vision becomes blurred in the affected eye giving patients the feeling that their vision is slowly fading like the colours in an old photograph.
- Wet AMD, which affects 10 per cent of AMD sufferers, occurs when normal blood vessels behind the retina start to grow under the macula which causes bleeding and scarring and can lead to rapid loss of central vision.
- Blurred or distorted vision
- Straight lines may appear wavy or fuzzy
- Objects may appear an unusual size or shape
- Sensitivity to light
- Seeing lights, shapes and colours that do not exist
- A blank or dark spot in the centre of vision
- Occasional discomfort, but AMD is not painful
There is now much scientific data on three particular natural health products that may help with this condition: lutein, bilberry and grape seed.
Lutein, naturally found in dark green vegetables where it is thought to filter out harmful sun rays, is the most talked-about antioxidant of the moment. It exists naturally in the macula of the eye where it is partially converted into a component called zeaxanthin. Scientific research has shown that, when converted to zeaxanthin, lutein protects the eyes from oxidation damage by 'mopping up' free radicals and filtering out the harmful sunlight that damages the retina. This, in turn, is thought to protect against AMD.
The amount of lutein in the eye decreases with age and because the body can not make more the only way of replacing it is by taking a supplement. A study in 2004 showed that taking a lutein supplement improved the symptoms of AMD.
An increasing amount of research also seems to show that bilberry and grape seed may also be useful for the condition. Both contain chemicals called anthocyanidins which strengthen capillary walls, including the eye capillaries.