Eyesight tends to decline with age but you can hasten that decline by leading an unhealthy lifestyle. That’s the harrowing conclusion of a study published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology. The study found that participants who ate a diet high in red and processed meat, fried food, refined grains and high-fat dairy were three times more likely to develop late-stage age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

AMD is a common condition that affects the middle part of your vision, it does not lead to total loss of sight. However, in the later stages, AMD can cause vision loss, making everyday activities such as reading and recognizing faces difficult.

“Treatment for late, neovascular AMD is invasive and expensive, and there is no treatment for geographic atrophy, the other form of late AMD that also causes vision loss. It is in our best interest to catch this condition early and prevent development of late AMD , “said Shruti Dighe, who conducted the research as part of her master’s in epidemiology at UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions.

It turns out that a Western dietary pattern, one defined as high in consumption of red and processed meat, fried food, refined grains and high-fat dairy, may be a risk factor for developing late AMD.

However, a Western diet was not associated with development of early AMD in the study.

READ MORE: Eyesight warning: The food eaten by millions that can cause ‘blindness’ – what to avoid

The authors studied the occurrence of early and late AMD over approximately 18 years of follow-up among participants of the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Study.

Ms Dighe and colleagues used data on 66 different foods that participants self-reported consuming between 1987 and 1995 and identified two diet patterns in this cohort – Western and what researchers commonly refer to as “prudent” (healthy) – that best explained the greatest variation between diets.

“What we observed in this study was that people who had no AMD or early AMD at the start of our study and reported frequently consuming unhealthy foods were more likely to develop vision-threatening, late stage disease approximately 18 years later,” said study senior author Amy Millen, PhD, associate professor and associate chair of epidemiology and environmental health at UB.

The 2019 US-based study was one of the first examining diet patterns and development of AMD over time. The other studies were conducted in European cohorts.

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Early AMD is asymptomatic, meaning that people often don’t know that they have it. To catch it, a doctor would have to review a photo of the person’s retina, looking for pigmentary changes and development of drusen, or yellow deposits made up of lipids.

With early AMD, there could be either atrophy or a buildup of new blood vessels in the part of the eye known as the macula.

“When people start developing these changes they will begin to notice visual symptoms. Their vision will start diminishing,” Ms Dighe said. “This is advanced or late stage AMD.”

To date, most research has been conducted on specific nutrients – such as high-dose antioxidants – that seem to have a protective effect.

But, Ms Dighe explained at the time, people consume a variety of foods and nutrients, not just one or two, and that’s why looking at diet patterns helps tell more of the story.

“Our work provides additional evidence that that diet matters,” Ms Millen added.

“From a public health standpoint, we can tell people that if you have early AMD, it is likely in your best interest to limit your intake of processed meat, fried food, refined grains and high-fat dairy to preserve your vision over time. “

Living with AMD

The NHS says: “Speak to your eye specialist about a referral to a low-vision clinic if you’re having difficulty with daily activities.”

According to the health body, staff at the clinic can give useful advice and practical support.

For example, they can talk to you about:

  • Useful devices – such as magnifying lenses
  • Changes you can make to your home – such as brighter lighting
  • Software and mobile apps that can make computers and phones easier to use.

“If you have poor vision in both eyes, your specialist may refer you for a type of training called eccentric viewing training,” explains the NHS.

“This involves learning techniques that help make the most of your remaining vision.”

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