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Can macular degeneration be prevented with nutrition?

Article at a Glance
  • Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is an eye disease that generally occurs to people over age 60 and results in central, sharp vision loss. Our risk for developing AMD may increase as we age, but it also may be related to lifestyle and genetic factors. Two of the 20 or so genotypes that may be associated with an increased risk of AMD are the Y402H variant of the CFH gene and the A69S variant of ARMS2 gene.
  • Early signs of AMD included blurred vision or wavy lines, depending on the type of AMD. Some people will not see any AMD symptoms until their AMD has turned intermediate or late, so it is important to get regular eye exams, especially if AMD runs in your family.
  • While there is no cure for macular degeneration, you may be able to decrease your risk if you stop smoking and make a few dietary changes, particularly adding more leafy greens and fish to your plate. The National Eye Institute, through its Age-Related Eye Disease Studies, also found that you can slow the progression of AMD with a supplement regimen that includes vitamins C and E, zinc, copper, lutein, and zeaxanthin.
Prevent Macular Degeneration Supplements Nutrition

If you’re like me and you’re one of the millions of people who have had their DNA tested to find out more about their risks for certain diseases or where they come from, then perhaps you’ve already heard of macular degeneration. Or maybe you already knew about it from a family member who has it.

For age-related macular degeneration, I have a slightly increased risk because I have two copies of the Y402H variant in the CFH gene. I inherited one of each from my parents. Of the marker tested, rs1061170, I have the C genotype.

Before we get into what all that means, let’s take a look at what macular degeneration is, your risk of developing it, and nutritional approaches to preventing or treating macular degeneration.

What is macular degeneration?

Macular degeneration, a disease that destroys your sharp, central vision, is the leading cause of vision loss in Americans ages 60 and older. (R) Central vision is important in everyday tasks, such as driving and reading, and even being able to see people’s faces clearly. While age-related macular degeneration (AMD) doesn’t hurt, it causes the death of cells in your macula, which is what allows you to see fine details.

There are two types of AMD: wet or dry. With wet AMD, abnormal blood vessels grow under the macula, often leaking blood and fluid and leading to quick damage. With dry AMD, the cells that are light-sensitive in the macula break down more slowly, causing you to lose central vision over time.

What are the early signs of macular degeneration?

With wet AMD, blurred vision is an early common symptom, while dry AMD results in straight lines appearing crooked. For some people, vision loss occurs very slowly, so you may not notice it right away. For others, loss of vision in one or both eyes may happen quickly.

Blurred vision is generally a key sign of AMD, and it worsens. Objects also may not appear as bright as they once did. However, AMD does not lead to complete blindness. (R)

Diagnosing AMD

It’s important to note that again, symptoms may not develop right away with AMD. You’ll need to have your eyes dilated and examined by an ophthalmologist to determine if you have AMD. During these tests, he or she will use tools to look at the back of your eye, retina, and nerves. An Amsler grid test may be issued to determine if you are seeing lines wavy or they disappear, or your doctor may inject a fluorescent dye into your arm to determine leaky blood vessels in the eye as the dye makes its way through your body.

Finally, optical coherence tomography uses light waves, much like sound waves in an ultrasound, to capture high-resolution images of your eyes and any underlying issues. Your eye doctor will look for yellow deposits under the retina called drusen. Drusen develop normally as we age, but medium- to large-sized drusen could indicate AMD.

Medium-sized drusen are about the width of a human hair and a sign of early AMD. Intermediate AMD is characterized by large drusen and/or retina pigment changes, with some possible vision loss. People with late AMD have large drusen and vision loss, and at this point you’ll know if you have wet or dry AMD. However, you may still not notice any overall vision changes if you have late AMD in just one eye. Consult an eye doctor as soon as you notice blurring or any other changes in vision.

Macular Degeneration Risks

Your risk for macular degeneration is mainly age, with most cases starting at age 60 but some occurring earlier. Smoking also doubles your risk for AMD (R), and it’s more common among white people than African-Americans or Latinos. A family history of AMD also makes you more susceptible to it, likely due to genetics. However, nearly 20 genes may affect your risk of developing AMD, and health professionals don’t recommend basing your risk solely on your genetics.

However, as someone who enjoys more information rather than less, knowing about my potential genetic risk was important. We’ll just focus on the two genotypes that 23andme, where I got my DNA tested, pulled for additional research as being most relevant.

Y402H variant of CFH gene & A69S variant of ARMS2 gene

Again, my genetic testing results showed I had two copies of the Y402H variant in the CFH gene and one copy of the A69S variant.

With this information, my likelihood of developing AMD is 1.64 — not quite twice the risk as the general population. My chances are a little worse than someone who has one copy of Y402H and one copy of A69S variant (1.24), but better than someone with two copies of the A69S variant (1.99). If I had my two copies of Y402H plus one copy of A69S, my likelihood ratio would shoot to 4.49. Someone with two copies of each has a 21.70 likelihood ratio!

The Y402H variant is estimated to be responsible for about 43% of AMD cases. (R)

The A69S variant is estimated to be responsible for 36% of AMD cases. (R)

Can you reverse macular degeneration?

Treatment of macular degeneration early (get those regular vision exams!) can help slow down vision loss, but it won’t be able to cure or reverse macular degeneration.

That said, there are ways you can work to prevent macular degeneration if you have an increased risk. Taking lifestyle factors into account, you’ll of course want to quit smoking as soon as possible if you smoke. Exercising and maintaining normal blood pressure/cholesterol levels may help ward off AMD, along with ensuring your diet is rich in leafy green vegetables, fruits, and healthy sources of fiber and protein.

Do supplements help treat or prevent macular degeneration?

Supplementing your diet with additional nutrients and vitamins also may help slow down the effects of AMD, particularly late-stage AMD. A large body of research was performed by the National Eye Institute, called the Age-Related Eye Disease Studies (AREDS), which found a formula of certain vitamins and minerals that could help protect against AMD. (R) (R)

The two AREDS trials determined the following:

  • A combination of vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, zinc, and copper can reduce the risk of late AMD by 25%.
  • Adding lutein and zeaxanthin or omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) to that mix didn’t have any overall effect, but,replacing beta-carotene with a 5-to-1 mixture of lutein and zeaxanthin may help further reduce the risk of late AMD.” Lutein and zeaxanthin are natural antioxidants, both of which are found in the retina and lens. Interestingly, beta-carotene has been found to be associated with an increased risk of lung cancer in both current and former smokers, so this set of folks may benefit even more from the alternative combination of lutein and zeaxanthin. Participants who took the alternate combo also had an 18% lower risk of progressing to advanced AMD compared to those who were on beta-carotene.

Researchers then used the results of both studies to arrive at final recommendations of types of supplements and dosage, which have now been used for 10 years (R):

  • 500 mg vitamin C
  • 400 IU vitamin E
  • 80 mg zinc (zinc oxide)
  • 2 mg copper (cupric oxide)
  • 10 mg lutein and 2 mg zeaxanthin

Two-thirds of study participants also took a daily multivitamin while on this supplement regimen. Note that omega-3 supplements weren’t necessarily recommended by researchers based off study results, but they still suggest a diet high in fruits and vegetables (leafy greens) in addition to eating fish regularly — the Mediterranean diet is a good example. (R) The DHA in omega-3 fatty acids is particularly important in maintaining the integrity of retinal cells, so it may not be a bad idea to supplement with fish oil or a vegan omega-3 supplement if you do not regularly eat fish.

While there is no known treatment for preventing AMD, supplementing with with these six vitamins and minerals may be more beneficial in slowing the progression of the disease for those with intermediate or advanced AMD than diet or lifestyle changes alone. But for those concerned with developing AMD, having a diet high in lutein/zeaxanthin may decrease your risk.

Supplements for preventing macular degeneration

SupplementRecommended dosage from AREDS trialsNotes
Vitamin C500 mgAs an antioxidant, vitamin C helps reduce free radicals. It may even be beneficial for people who have cataracts, another leading cause of vision loss in older adults (R)
Vitamin E400 IUAlthough it has been shown to be helpful as part of a supplement regimen, vitamin E on its own may have no significant difference in affecting the progression or development of AMD (R)
Zinc80 mgPatients with ARMS2 risk alleles had the most benefit from zinc regimens (R)
Copper2 mgBeing deficient in copper is associated with optic neuropathy, but too much copper can be toxic (R)
Lutein10 mgHigher intake of bioavailable lutein/zeaxanthin is associated with a long-term reduced risk of advanced AMD (R)
Zeaxanthin2 mgIt may seem that lutein and zeaxanthin should work best together. In one animal study, zeaxanthin increased in the retina after high lutein supplementation, while retinal lutein was maintained after a high dose of zeaxanthin (R)

Key takeaways

While I only have a slightly increased risk of developing macular degeneration, I think it’s important for me to add more leafy greens to my diet and possibly begin supplementing with lutein/zeaxanthin. Though I love my fruits and vegetables, leafy greens are one of those items at the grocery store I tend to gloss over (aside from simple spinach), so it’s time to begin prioritizing some more recipes with Swiss chard, kale, and mustard greens. And while researchers have not found an exact formula for preventing AMD, supplementing with zinc and copper may be an option for some if they don’t get enough of it in their diets.

Have you or a family member been diagnosed with AMD? What supplement combinations have worked for you?

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2 Comments

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  1. Alina says:

    My 23andme showed I have 1 copy of the Y402H variant and NOT at an increased risk of AMD. My grandma just developed it at the age of 70. Surely enough, I am 28 and I just got diagnosed with macular degeneration. Thank you for the article.

  2. Brian says:

    “Again, my genetic testing results showed I had two copies of the Y402H variant in the CFH gene and one copy of the A69S variant.”

    “If I had my two copies of Y402H plus one copy of A69S, my likelihood ratio would shoot to 4.49.”

    I suppose your likelihood ratio is in fact 4.49 then? Not to be rude or anything, it was just difficult to get through the contradictions in that section.

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