Seeing is Believing

eyeWhoa, baby boomers, you may want to listen up: by 2025, the population of those over 55 will be six times greater than it was in 1990. The news that Judi Dench is going blind from age-related macular degeneration underscores a little known fact: macular degeneration is the #1 cause of legal blindness with people over 55 in the Western World. In the next ten years, macular degeneration may reach epidemic proportions.

What exactly is macular degeneration?  Basically, damage to the central part of your retina (the macula) caused by aging, genetics, and environmental factors.  The macula is what let’s us see details – it enables us to drive, read, and see people’s faces.  There are two types: dry, the result of deposits that form in the macula, which leads to a gradual decline of eyesight, and wet, which results in blood vessels forming under the retina that leak, the effects of which are rapid and severe.  Tell tale signs of the disease are dark smudges that appear in your central vision.

The artist Edgar Degas was diagnosed with macular degeneration at age 40, and by the age of 57 couldn’t read.  Rather than giving up painting, he adapted, turning to pastels (which required less precision than oils) and also sculpture.  Imagine, Little Dancer might well not have existed without his inspired response to the challenges of this debilitating disease.

There is no cure.  So what can you do to reduce your chances of getting this disease, or not going blind if one gets it?

Dr Johanna Seddon is an eye specialist at the Tufts University School of Medicine.  A coal miner’s daughter, her father instilled in her a holistic attitude that you are what you eat.   (This phrase was first expressed in 1826 by French epicure/politician Brillat-Savarin, who wrote “tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.  It was later coined as “you are what you eat” by nutritionist Victor Lindlahr in the 1920s, and trumpeted by organic food guru Adelle Davis in the 1960s.)  Johanna’s father pushed her away from the Western Pennsylvania coal mines into medicine and this natural approach, and after getting a doctorate from the Harvard School of Public Health she went on to found a research division at Harvard to study nutrition for the prevention of eye disease.

Colleagues were skeptical.  At conferences her talks were scheduled at lunchtime, and moderators would joke about her research linking food and eye health.  Then she blew them away with a study that came out showing the effects of antioxidants on eye health and how they could reduce the risk of macular degeneration.  She’s now the founding director of the Ophthalmic Epidemiology and Genetics Service at the New England Eye Center, Tufts Medical Center.

Even without the fancy titles, folklorists have believed diet influences health for centuries – Spanish explorers in the 1500s took chile peppers (rich in vitamin C and betacarotene) on sea voyages to prevent scurvy and promote night vision.  But, before Seddon, no scientist had documented the link.

So is diet a cure-all for the disease?

No.  But eating a diet rich in nutrients essential to your eyes can help.

So what should we be eating?  In a nutshell (no pun intended, for almonds are key), here’s the list to put on your refrigerator:

  •  Vitamin A: liver, fish oils, egg yolks, dairy
  • Cartenoids (a precursor to vitamin A, such as betacarotene and lutein): orange peppers, mangoes, kale, or other colorful fruits and vegetables
  • Lutein and zeaxanthin (another type of carotenoid): egg yolks, kiwi, squash, leafy greens
  • Vitamin D3: salmon, mackerel, sardines, beef liver, fortified milk
  • Vitamin C: fruits, cauliflower, green cabbage
  • Vitamin E: broccoli, peanuts, almonds, avocadoes, sunflower seeds
  • Omega 3 fatty acids: fatty fish, flaxseed, walnuts, squash, tofu
  • Zinc: oysters, crab, nuts, whole grains
  • Lycopene: tomatoes, watermelon, pink grapefruit
  • Antioxidants: cranberries, blueberries, pomegranates, and other dark foods

So, you might say, that’s all well and good to say “eat a lot of mackerel” but does anyone know five ways to prepare it?

Here’s where the punchline comes in: a few years ago I was approached by Chip Goehring, who felt a cookbook was needed.  Like Seddon, he drank the Kool-Aid before the medical establishment agreed to the link.  A 39-year-old lawyer when he was diagnosed (“I didn’t even know how to spell it – I thought it was molecular degeneration”), Goehring quit his law practice, and threw himself into fighting the disease.  What he found was a link between food and eye health.  He started the American Macular Degeneration Foundation, which is dedicated to funding research on the disease, and 20 years later can still drive, read, and function well.

I don’t have macular degeneration.  The book wasn’t an obvious choice for me.  My specialties range along the lines of nuclear power and hot sauce (going from explosion to explosion, my father always quipped).   But when I saw the link between diet and eye health – and the fact that what’s good for your eyes is also good for your heart , bones, and the rest of you, I might add – I realized he was on to something.

Seeing is believing.

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