Vision Quest

Of all the senses, sight may be our most precious gift, but it isn’t immune to
the ravages of light and time. Learn how a variety of nutrients and supplements can help
you fight age-related vision problems and keep your eyes healthy and strong.

By Stephen Hanks

October 2006

I didn’t really believe the Baroness, so I decided to give her a little test. A couple of months before, I had interviewed the 77-year-old, but still youthful, Benita von Klingspor, a certified nutritional consultant from California (who grew up a baroness in Austria), for an Energy Times piece on “Aging with Attitude.” I was surprised to learn that although nearly 80, the baroness claimed to have “perfect vision” for everything except driving her car (for which she needed distance-vision glasses).

Being a skeptical (and sometimes mischievous) editor, when I met Ms. von Klingspor at a natural products trade show last March, I enthusiastically handed her the issue with her interview. “She’ll have to pop on some reading glasses to read that small type,” I thought as she started scanning the story. Paragraph after paragraph went by and she never reached for the specs. Somehow the baroness had managed to escape the ravages of age-related vision loss. How was it possible? She eagerly told me that her secret was the diligent taking of nutritional supplements, especially her own personal wonder nutrient—lutein.

“I have been supplementing with lutein for several years,” she explained, “and even though my vision was always good, it became even more clear with lutein. One time when I was traveling I couldn’t take it for about a month and I soon noticed that I was unable to read the very fine print on some vitamin bottles that I usually had no trouble reading. This continued for about three weeks until I was able to purchase lutein again. Within days, I was able to read the small print. I recommend lutein to all my clients and they have noticed great improvement in their vision.”

Nothing can make you feel older (except perhaps for creeping arthritic conditions and looking at family photo albums) than having vision problems after you’ve seen pretty clearly your whole life. And millions of middle-aged and senior Americans are suffering from the big three age-related eye disorders and causes of vision loss—macular degeneration, cataracts and glaucoma. But unlike near- and far-sightedness (which require glasses or contact lenses and now can be corrected through laser surgery) and presbyopia (which necessitates the need for reading glasses once people hit their 40s), the onset of the Big Three can be delayed, and their severity minimized, by getting nutrients (through both food and supplements) that strengthen vision.

The Vision Triple Threat

While cataracts and glaucoma are the eye maladies that get all the press, age-related macular degeneration (ARMD) has become the leading cause of blindness in Americans 65 and older. This disease affects 1.75 million people, a number that is expected to grow to almost 3 million by 2020.

With ARMD there is a gradual destruction of the macula, the part of the retina responsible for the clear, sharp central vision needed to read or drive. (The retina is what converts light and images into nerve impulses.) Symptoms include blind spots or blurred vision that can become worse over time. Most researchers say ARMD mostly affects white women and people with light-colored eyes; major risk factors are smoking, obesity and high blood pressure. There is no known cure for ARMD but proper nutrition and supplementation can certainly help prevent its troubling symptoms.

An estimated 20 million Americans aged 40 and over suffer vision loss from cataracts and by age 65 nearly half of all people begin to develop them. You have cataracts when a cloudy haze develops inside the eye’s normally transparent lens. Once the lens becomes cloudy—usually because clumps of protein form on the surface—less light reaches the retina. Cataracts commonly affect distance vision and cause problems with glare.

The good news is that cataracts are among the most treatable causes of vision loss. In fact, it is possible to prevent, stabilize—even reverse cataracts by protecting your eyes from the sun and getting enough of the right nutrients.

Glaucoma is called “the silent thief of sight” because many people with this disorder don’t experience pain or notice its attack on peripheral vision. About 3 million Americans suffer vision loss from glaucoma and another 2 to 3 million are at risk for it. Glaucoma is caused by increased pressure within the eye. This damages the optic nerve, the nerve fibers that send vision signals to the brain. Glaucoma damage is irreversible, but some supplements may impede its progress.

Food for the Eyes

Remember when your grandma told you to eat your carrots because it could keep your eyes healthy? That’s because carrots contain beta carotene, which your body converts into vitamin A, which in turn prevents night blindness and protects the retina.

But lutein (plus it’s phytonutrient partner, zeaxanthin) and beta-carotene aren’t the only nutrients, found in a variety of foods, that can contribute to overall eye health. Experts believe many substances (such as those available in supplement form listed alphabetically below) can combat the

Big Three chronic eye diseases and enhance vision. Remember to consult with a health professional to determine which supplements might be helpful to you and in what amounts they should be consumed:

• Alpha-lipoic acid is an antioxidant shown to enhance color vision and visual sensitivity in glaucoma sufferers; helps to reduce diabetic cataract formation and to minimize ARMD.
• Bilberry is a flavonoid-based antioxidant that improves night vision (especially in glaucoma sufferers) and lessens ARMD’s effects.
• Lutein and zeaxanthin are carotenoids, found in vibrantly colored fruits and vegetables, that protect against damage caused by blue light, stabilize the pigment layer underneath the retina and minimize effects of ARMD and cataracts.
• Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, flaxseeds and dark leafy green vegetables, are beneficial fats now believed to minimize the harmful effects of ARMD.
• Vitamin A (or its precursor, beta-carotene, found in carrots, pumpkin, spinach and apricots) protects the retina, is helpful in minimizing ARMD and cataracts, and improves night vision.
• Vitamin B complex, including thiamin, riboflavin, pyridoxine, niacin and folic acid, defends the optic nerves and retinal receptors, the light-capturing structures within the retina.
• Vitamin C is found in high levels within the eye; protects against free-radical damage from UV light and helps prevent cataracts; can minimize effects of glaucoma.
• Vitamin E is helpful in protecting against cataracts and ARMD.
• Zinc is vital for normal retina function and also stabilizes ARMD.

Just as important as getting the proper nutrients is making sure you go for that yearly eye exam—especially once you hit age 45. Even if you don’t have any apparent problems or symptoms, the major eye maladies can be detected by a trained examiner. Eye problems can also be an indication of everything from dizziness to hypertension to diabetes and even some types of tumors.

So if like Baroness Benita von Klingspor you want to be reading a story like this without reading glasses when you’re close to 80, start now on that quest for healthy vision.

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