Carrots may help prevent macular degeneration

St. Louis, Missouri: Although major studies are still under way, reports published in the Journal of the American Optometric Association (12-93) are promising enough to convince many optometrists to consider recommending diet changes and vitamin and mineral supplements to prevent, retard or stop the dry form of age-related macular degeneration.

About 90 percent of people with macular degeneration have the dry form, for which there has been no known treatment. The less common wet form responds to laser treatments if it is diagnosed and treated early.

Macular degeneration is the result of the destruction of light-sensitive cells in the retina, which lines the back of the eye. It affects the retina's most cell-rich section, called the macula. The result is a loss of central vision needed for reading and close work. Color vision and distance vision are also affected.

Research cited in several of the optometric journal's articles identifies certain vitamins and minerals, known as antioxidants, that are effective in preventing this cell destruction. They include beta-carotene, vitamins C and E, zinc, and selenium. According to Diane P. Yolton, O.D., Ph.D., and a team of researchers at the Pacific University College of Optometry in Oregon, the big questions are: What amount of each of these is most effective in preventing or stopping the progression of macular degeneration? When should people take action?

It may be years before the answers are known. In the meantime, it won't hurt -- and it might help -- for people to be sure they are getting at least the recommended daily allowances of these antioxidants. There are two ways to do this: diet and vitamin/mineral supplements.

Stuart Richer, O.D., chief of the Optometry Section at the DVA Medical Center in North Chicago and associate professor at the Illinois College of optometry, advocates following the diet recommended by the government for general health. That is a low-fat diet with at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily and with lesser amounts of meat, milk, eggs, oils and refined sugars.

Dr. Yolton and her research colleagues say supplements are necessary because most people aren't going to follow the ideal diet day after day.

In a study involving people over age 55 who were healthy and eating a diet considered normal for adults, three of four were deficient in two or more of the antioxidants thought to be important to eye health. Almost all were missing at least one, wrote Michael S. Kaminski, O.D., of the Pacific University College of Optometry.

At least a half dozen vitamin/mineral supplements containing the antioxidants considered effective in preventing or treating macular degeneration are on the market. Some, however, do not differ significantly from dosages found in daily non-prescription multivitamin formulas.

"But no one should start taking these supplements for diseases such as age-related macular degeneration without first discussing the matter with their optometrist," Dr. Yolton said. The optometrist will take into consideration such factors as the person's age, risk for developing macular degeneration, current diet, vitamin/mineral deficiencies and vision and eye health status.

"These supplements contain different levels of the antioxidants and the optometrist can give patients information to help them decide which brands are right for them," Dr. Yolton said.

She noted that in a study of two of the vitamin/mineral supplements formulated for the eyes, the Pacific University research team found-that the supplement containing 5,000 international units (IU) of beta-carotene had no significant effect on levels in participants' blood but the one with 6,000 I.U. did.

"For someone who is getting sufficient beta-carotene in their diet, the difference between these two supplements may not matter," she said. "But for someone whose diet is lacking, it can be important."

Dr. Richer said people can get 10,000 IU of beta-carotene just by eating one carrot or one half of a sweet potato.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): An Elderly Person.

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