Currently, 1 in 11 Canadians over the age of 65 are living with vision loss. Given our ageing population, the number of people affected by eye disease leading to vision loss looks likely to increase dramatically. Poor vision reduces quality of life and is linked to greater chances of falls, depression, and possibly even a shorter life span. Shockingly, almost 75% of most eye diseases that led to vision loss were preventable, which means preventative eye care and regular eye exams are critical. The most common eye disease is age related macular degeneration (AMD), followed by cataracts, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy.
The leading cause of vision loss in those over 65, AMD is progressive damage to the macula, which leads to central vision loss (but not total vision loss). There are two forms: dry and wet.
The dry form is considered less severe and symptoms develop gradually. The Ontario Association of Optometrists describes common symptoms as: fuzziness of central vision, the need for increased lighting to read, distortion of objects, or the development of a central vision blind spot. The wet form is less common, but more severe. Symptoms are the same as dry AMD, but they tend to occur more rapidly and more severely.
Currently, there is no cure for AMD and treatments are minimal. However, in 2002, The Age Related Eye Disease Study concluded that high levels of vitamins (A, C, E) and zinc (with copper) can slow the progression. Therefore, those at high risk or early diagnosis should consider a multi-form appropriate dosage of these vitamins and minerals. Always consult a health care professional before implementing such protocols.
More than 2.5 million Canadians have cataracts, a common age related eye condition usually found during routine eye exams. Cataracts are painless and occur when the lens of the eye hardens (a natural process associated with age), turns cloudy, blocks light from reaching the vision-responsible area of the eye (the retina) and interferes with vision. Those living with cataracts describe the vision impairment similar to looking through a dirty windshield.
It is common to develop a cataract in one eye and later the other. Cataract surgery, which involves replacement of the cloudy lens, is generally safe and successful. However, as with any surgery, there are risk factors and recovery time. Also, recent Ontario health cuts have implied that cataract surgery may not be as available as it once was. Preliminary research indicates that a cataract can be stabilized through proper nutrition or supplementation of certain antioxidants such as lutein, vitamin C and E.
However, promoting proper eye health through prevention (i.e. avoiding high risk factors such as smoking, diabetes and excessive sun exposure) should be the first line of defense.
Glaucoma, the second leading cause of blindness in Canada, involves damage to the optic nerve (the nerve responsible for vision messages to the brain) that is commonly seen with increased ocular pressure. Not everyone who has increased eye pressure has glaucoma, but they may be considered at high risk of developing this serious disease.
Initially, glaucoma will affect your peripheral, or side, vision. If left untreated, vision will reduce gradually in a ‘tunnel’ vision type pattern, leading to eventual total vision loss. Early detection and treatment is essential to prevent severe vision impairment.
Common risk factors include diabetes, family history, ethnicity (Hispanic or African decent), elevated eye pressure, and age (over 40). The CNIB recommends that if you have some of these risk factors you should talk to your eye doctor before taking antihistamines, antidepressants, or starting an exercise routine that includes weight training.
Elevated blood sugar levels that damage the eyes’ blood vessels is called Diabetic Retinopathy. Because Diabetic Retinopathy often goes undetected until late stages of the disease, it is very prevalent and serious. Those living with diabetes must visit their eye doctor regularly: The Canadian Diabetes Association recommends yearly visits. Symptoms include dark spots in your visual field, blurred or double vision, and large floaters (must be detectable on a white wall).
Managing your diabetes (strict blood sugar monitoring) is the best preventative strategy, while some research supports the use of the herbal supplement Gingko biloba as an effective natural supplement to improve and reduce disease progression.
However, all herbal medications should be discussed with your health care providers.
Simple lifestyle changes can play an important role in reducing your risk of developing these common eye diseases.
Shield your eyes. Protecting your eyes from the sun’s UV rays can help delay cataracts and reduce the risk of AMD. Look for a manufacturer’s label indicating glasses that offer 99 to 100% UVA and B protection. Encourage all the family to wear sunglasses, including the kids, all year long.
Eat well or consider supplementation. Eating a healthy, well balanced diet will help reduce the risk of major conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, as well as eye diseases. However, people are often surprised to learn that most eye diseases are preventable. Proper nutritional support is one of the top preventative ways to avoid eye diseases. Look for foods rich in antioxidants and high in vitamins A, C and E. These vitamins are found naturally in bright coloured fruits and vegetables (such as oranges, kiwis, tomatoes, broccoli, kale and carrots). You might consider a good quality eye-specific multi-vitamin. A recent report from the Archives of Ophthalmology analyzed nine studies and concluded that high dietary intake of Omega 3s (two portions of fish per week) reduced the risk of AMD by 23 to 30%. If you are considering or currently supplementing with Omega 3s, make sure your product has high amounts of DHA (at least 300 mg).
Butt out! Smoking increases your risk of cataracts, AMD, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma. The sooner you quit, the more you can reduce your risk.
Exercise. Regular physical activity has been linked to reduced risk of AMD and a reduced progression rate of diabetic retinopathy, and may also lower eye pressure associated with glaucoma. Start slowly and find something you enjoy!
1. Regular eye exams by an eye-care professional. Don’t ignore changes in your vision.
2. Eat healthily and exercise regularly.
3. Protect your eyes from sunlight. Wear a hat with a brim, and choose sunglasses that provide at least 99% UV protection.
4. Consider supplementation to increase your source of antioxidants, Vitamins A, C and E, and Omegas. Talk to your health care provider first.
5. Quit smoking and reduce alcohol consumption.
Dr. Angela Lee, BSc, ND, a licensed Naturopathic Doctor and clinic director of VitalChecks: Richmond Hill’s Integrative Naturopathic Clinic, is passionate about community health awareness and currently volunteers with the Canadian Diabetes Association and CNIB. Tel: 905 237 7031. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. www.vitalchecks.ca.