Column: Aging and eye health — a reason to go green

While many folks know a carrot a day can help keep the eye doctor away, few realize that kale is the superior eye-strengthening veggie.

That’s because the vegetable is high in lutein — also known as the “eye vitamin” — and is helpful in preventing diseases of the eye, including age-related macular degeneration, which is virtually untreatable and is the leading cause of severe vision loss among those 50 or older, according to the American Optometric Association.

Leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale offer the highest amount of lutein per serving, according to the American Macular Degeneration Foundation, and incorporating these nutrient-rich vegetables can help stave off the condition, said Dr. Christine Buono of North Shore Eye Care.

She said she sees multiple patients each day who are affected by the disease, which damages the macula, a small spot near the center of the retina that’s needed for sharp, central vision.

The macula helps us focus on objects directly in front of us and, when damaged, can interfere with everyday activities like reading, writing, driving or even focusing on a familiar face, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Lutein, Dr. Buono said, occurs naturally in the eye, helping to protect and maintain healthy cells in the macula, and a daily intake of lutein through diet or nutritional supplements is important to maintain good eye health.

She said patients with the disease often first notice its impact on their ability to read.

“Their reading speed has decreased and it is harder to see the words — even with extra magnification,” she said.

Caucasians are at higher risk for age-related macular degeneration than other races, and women also develop it at an earlier age than men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Buono said age-related macular degeneration currently affects about 14 percent of Caucasians age 80 or older, making it quite common.

“It is a public health problem and there is research going on constantly,” she said. “They are working very hard on it, to create a medication, drops or injections for these people.”

While genetics also play a role, the most significant risk factor is smoking.

“Smokers are up four times more likely to develop the disease, as it decrease the oxygenated blood supply into to the eye,” she said. “Poor diet and not exercising also have impacts.”

Depending on the type of degeneration, patients may be able to receive an injection that, received regularly, can help improve vision, she said. Otherwise, a healthy diet, exercise and supplements are the only available treatment options.

And don’t forget that filling up that plate with lots of greens — kale, spinach and other leafy vegetables — is also a good way to keep those eyes healthy.

If someone should notice changes in their vision, especially at age 55 or older, they should visit their ophthalmologist, Dr. Buono said.

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