With age, vision changes. If you’re over 40, you probably already know that! Often, during the fourth decade, it becomes harder to focus on items that are close to your eyes, such as reading material. This condition, known as presbyopia, happens because the lens of the eye becomes stiffer and doesn’t bend as easily to focus light on the back of the eyes. As a result, objects that you view at close range are focused too far behind the retina, the light-sensitive portion of the eye. So, objects you look at close up aren’t as distinct. Presbyopia usually begins with difficulty reading print at close range, such as a menu, especially in the dark. It can gradually worsen to the point that you have to wear glasses to see anything up close.
Presbyopia is a normal part of aging, but there are more serious eye diseases that also become more common with age. One of the most serious is age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Age-related macular degeneration is a progressive eye condition that damages the macula, part of the retina in the back of your eye. The retina is the light-sensitive structure that converts light into signals the brain can read and interpret. The macula is part of the retina and is the portion best adapted for sharp, central vision. When it’s damaged by AMD, it becomes hard to do activities that require sharp central vision, such as driving or reading. Even recognizing faces becomes difficult as the disease advances. Cataracts also increase in frequency with age. Fortunately, they, unlike AMD, can be corrected surgically.
The Role Diet Plays in Healthy Vision
Of course, we’d all like to prevent these eye diseases. Can diet have an impact? Fortunately, there’s evidence that certain foods may offer some protection against macular degeneration and, possibly, cataracts as well. So, what should you eat to lower your risk of vision-robbing eye conditions like AMD and cataracts?
We often hear about the health benefits of fruits and vegetables. It seems that certain types of produce may be particularly beneficial for the health of your eyes due to their ability to quench free radicals. When ultraviolet light hits the retina, high-energy free radicals form that are damaging to this delicate tissue. Over time, the retina, and the super, light-sensitive portion, the macular, become damaged. That’s when macular degeneration sets in. Not to mention, ultraviolet light exposure can hasten cataract formation. Blue light, including blue light from devices, also injures the light-sensitive tissue in the retina in the back of your eyes. So, it’s important to reduce blue light exposure as much as you can too.
The good news is that studies show that fruits and vegetables rich in compounds, called carotenoids, may protect the retina against damage due to ultraviolet light. Two, in particular, lutein and zeaxanthin, are naturally found in the retina and also in certain foods. These carotenoids help protect the retina by acting as antioxidants. When blue light and ultraviolet light hit the retina and free radicals form, these antioxidants help to neutralize them.
What are the best sources of these eye-friendly carotenoids? Leafy greens of all types are rich in carotenoids, but also add yellow and orange vegetables to the list. When you eat these foods, lutein and zeaxanthin build up in the retina and further protect it against UV and blue light damage.
Is there scientific support for the protective benefits of carotenoid-rich foods? A study published in Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science linked higher levels of carotenoids in the retina to a lower risk of developing macular degeneration. Another study in the American Journal of Epidemiology, Ophthalmology, and Archives of Ophthalmology found a similar link. In fact, there some evidence that foods high in one particular carotenoid, zeaxanthin may modestly improve visual acuity and night vision. It’s another reason to fill your plates with veggies!
Other Vision-Friendly Lifestyle Habits
If you’re trying to avoid age-related eye problems, stop smoking. Smoking increases the production of eye-damaging free radicals. When you go out, wear a pair of quality sunglasses that filters ultraviolet light before it reaches the back of your eyes. What about the blue light that devices emit? Preliminary studies suggest that blue light is toxic to the receptors in the retina that sense light. Fortunately, you can buy glasses with orange lenses, that block blue light while you’re using a device. You can also adjust the light on many smartphones to shift it toward the orange spectrum, away from the more damaging blue. You’re at greatest risk when you use devices that emit blue light in the dark.
Another Habit That Can Protect Your Vision
Are there other lifestyle habits that help protect against age-related visual loss from macular degeneration? How about exercise? Yes, there is evidence that exercise lowers the risk of age-related macular degeneration AND cataracts. In fact, a study in runners found that those who ran more than 2.4 miles daily had a 50% lower risk of developing macular degeneration. A study involving men found that guys who ran more than 5.7 miles daily, compared to less than 1.4 miles daily, enjoyed a 35% lower risk of developing cataracts. It’s not clear whether less intense forms of exercise, such as walking, also reduce the risk.
The Bottom Line
Your vision matters! Choosing what you put on your plate may help lower your risk of the two most common age-related eye problems, cataracts, and age-related macular degeneration. Eating your leafy greens is one and adding some color to your plate, particularly orange and yellow produce, is your best bet. Also, more vigorous exercise that boosts your heart rate significantly may also protect against these common eye problems. Make sure you’re protecting your eyes against blue and ultraviolet light too by wearing appropriate, protective eyewear. Your eyes matter too much to take a chance!
American Optometric Association. “Adult Vision: 41 to 60 Years of Age”
National Eye Institute. “Facts About Age-Related Macular Degeneration”
J Ophthalmol. 2015; 2015: 687173.
Berkeley Lab. “Vigorous Exercise May Help Prevent Vision Loss”
All About Vision. “How Carotenoids Can Keep Your Eyes Healthy”
All About Vision. “Lutein And Zeaxanthin: Eye And Vision Benefits”
The University of Toledo. “UT Chemists Discover How Blue Light Speeds Blindness”