Once you get past the age of 40, you start squinting to read the fine print and struggle to decipher menus in restaurants that have low lighting. Presbyopia or problems seeing up close is a normal part of aging and one that you can’t avoid. There are other eye problems that can progress to blindness. These are ones that you want to avoid.
Did you know half of blindness worldwide is because of cataracts? Marked by cloudiness of the lens of the eye that filters light, cataracts become more common with age. As cataracts worsen, the cloudiness of the lens causes problems seeing in low light and at night. Colors look more faded than they are and it’s difficult to make out details when you look at something. Cataracts can progress over time to where reading is difficult and seeing at night is impossible.
Risk Factors for Cataracts
What factors predispose to cataracts? Age is the strongest risk factor, but lifestyle and environmental factors play a role too. For example, smoking doubles the risk of developing this vision-robbing eye problem. Luckily, smoking is a habit you can give up or never start in the first place. Excessive alcohol consumption, poor nutrition, trauma to the eyes, and diabetes also boost the odds of developing cataracts. Medications can too. Certain ones, particularly corticosteroids, increase cataract risk if you take them for a long time. Some studies suggest that statins do the same, although studies are inconclusive.
Another factor you can control, to some extent, is how much ultraviolet light your eyes are exposed to. High-energy waves from the sun create free radicals that damage the lens and, over time, cause lens cloudiness and problems seeing. Physical activity may also lower your risk of developing cataracts. Grab a pair of stylish, but high-quality sunglasses! Sporting a pair of sunglasses that block damaging rays helps lower the odds of developing age-related cataracts.
Can You Prevent Cataracts Through Diet?
As mentioned, nutrition plays a role in who develops cataracts. For example, deficiencies in certain vitamins contribute to cataract formation. One of interest is vitamin C. Why vitamin C? Vitamin C is an antioxidant vitamin. It helps neutralize free radicals and oxidative stress that damages the lens of the eye.
On the plus side, there is evidence that a higher intake of vitamin C may lower the risk of cataracts. The evidence is strongest for people who take the vitamin in supplement form for a decade or more. Quantities of vitamin C between 60 and 250 milligrams seem to have some protective benefits, but larger amounts offer no additional protection. Taking high doses of vitamin C can cause side effects, including digestive upset and an increased risk of kidney stones.
Studies show it’s important to get enough of certain vitamins, particularly B-vitamins, vitamin A, and vitamin E, but there’s no evidence that taking supplemental forms of these vitamins reduces the risk. In fact, there’s some evidence that high doses of B-vitamin from supplements increase the likelihood of developing cataracts, based on a study in healthy, middle-aged adults.
Help yourself to another serving of greens! Greens are rich in carotenoids, including zeaxanthin and lutein. In one large study, supplementing with lutein and zeaxanthin reduced the progression of cataracts. The benefits were strongest in people who already have low levels of these nutrients. Add some fish to those greens! Salmon and trout contain another carotenoid called astaxanthin. Preliminarily, it looks like astaxanthin may modestly reduce the odds of developing cataracts.
Eating a nutrient-dense diet high in antioxidants may help stave off cataracts. This is based on a study published in JAMA Ophthalmology. The study linked diets high in antioxidant-rich foods with a reduced risk of cataracts. It makes sense since one of the probable mechanisms by which cataracts form is oxidative damage to the lens of the eye. So, eat your fruits and vegetables!
How Do You Know if You Have Cataracts?
Cataracts cause a gradual loss in the ability to see clearly. With cataracts, it’s common to have problems reading small letters or print with cataracts and driving at night is difficult as it becomes harder to read road signs. Cataracts often afflict both eyes. If you only have them in one eye, it’s often the left eye. That’s because side windows in a car often aren’t designed to filter out damaging rays like the windshield in the front is. In Great Britain, where drivers sit on the right side, cataracts are more common in the right eye.
A physician can usually see cataracts by looking in your eyes with an ophthalmoscope. That’s why it’s important to get a regular eye exam, even if you don’t have problems with your vision. Cataracts aren’t the only eye problem that can steal your sight. Glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration are two other common eye diseases that lead to blindness. In fact, glaucoma sometimes comes on quickly and can cause blindness if you don’t treat it promptly.
Once You Have Cataracts
Unfortunately, no vitamin or nutritional interventions can reverse cataracts once they form. The only treatment is a surgical procedure that removes the cloudy lens and replaces it with a new one. Cataract surgery is safe and takes less than 15 minutes for the procedure itself. If you have cataracts, you don’t have to treat them right away. People usually opt for surgery when the symptoms start to interfere with their daily activities. The surgery can greatly improve quality of life by helping you see more clearly.
The Bottom Line
Eating a nutrient-dense, whole food diet is your best bet for staving off or delaying cataracts. Munching on more vitamin C-rich foods, fish, and carotenoid-rich foods, like greens and yellow and orange fruits and vegetables may also offer protection–but don’t depend solely on diet. Always wear sunglasses when you step outside on a bright day! Protecting your eyes against ultraviolet light damage is one of the best ways to keep your eyes healthy and avoid cataracts. Do it because your vision matters. You need sight to enjoy life to its fullest.
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Ophthalmology June 2016. Volume 123, Issue 6, Pages 1237–1244.
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