Here’s one to add to the growing list of benefits conferred by increasing your intake of Omega-3 fatty acids as epitomized by the Mediterranean diet — a dramatically lowered risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). According to the first of several recently published studies, having just one serving of fish per week lowers your risk of macular degeneration by 31 percent while a serving or two of nuts reduces risk by 35 percent. The research found an even stronger association when subjects consumed lower levels of polyunsaturated vegetable oils. And, in fact, despite what the researchers say, this is actually confirmation once again that the key here is not so much the increase in Omega-3 fatty acids, but in correcting of the ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids.
Summing up their findings, the researchers wrote, “In conclusion, our findings support the hypothesis that increased intake of omega-three polyunsaturated fatty acids and regular consumption of fish and/or nuts in the diet may protect against the development of early AMD. These findings also suggest that an appropriate balance among various nutrients is essential for maximizing nutritional benefit.”
Meanwhile, a separate study of 6730 seniors conducted by the Centre for Eye Research (also in Australia) found that the subjects who consumed the highest levels of olive oil (mostly Omega-9 monosaturated fat) had the lowest risk of developing macular degeneration, while those who ate the most trans-fat rich food, especially in baked goods and prepared foods, had the highest rates.
Up until these studies, smoking, genetic factors, and age were identified as the principal contributors to the development of the disease. The researchers suggest that they need additional data to determine whether changing diet or supplementing with Omega-3 might prevent or postpone macular degeneration in those who have a genetic predisposition. (It seems obvious without waiting for the results of those future studies that subjects who eat more Omega-3 rich foods and fewer Omega-6 rich foods and high trans fat foods would have fewer cases of macular degeneration — or at least, it couldn’t hurt. Anyway, there are plenty of other benefits to eschewing trans fats and reestablishing the proper fatty acid balance in your body beyond preserving eyesight. )
The researchers suggest that nuts, fish, and olive oil aid the eyes because of their Omega-3 fatty acid content and/or low Omega-6 content. They believe that Omega-3s reduce inflammation in the retina and prevent plaque buildup in the arteries. They also contend that trans fats have the opposite effect, increasing inflammation and depositing plaque in the retina and blood vessels leading to the eyes. But that’s only half the story. The researchers seem to have forgotten the results of their own study that showed that reducing consumption of Omega-6 rich vegetables oils also made a difference. So once again, it’s not just the consumption of Omega-3 oils that matters. It’s moving the ratio down from the usual 20:1, 30:1, 40:1 Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids typical of the Western diet to a more healthy 2:1 or even 1:1 ratio.
Given that macular degeneration is the primary cause of blindness in older adults and that experts project that as many as three million people will have the disease within the next 12 years, those who value their sight would be wise to pay attention to these studies. If preserving your sight doesn’t motivate you, as mentioned above, there are plenty of other reasons to toss the Wesson Oil and stock up on nuts and olive oil. Studies show that the Mediterranean diet dramatically cuts the risk of almost every leading illness — including cancer and heart disease — plus it confers longer life. And if even that doesn’t inspire you to switch to the diet, here’s one more tidbit that might: a related study found a significant link between macular degeneration and cognitive decline.
The director of that study, Tien Yin Wong of the University of Melbourne, summed up his findings: “Our study suggests that there may be common links in the cause and risk factors for both conditions [macular degeneration and cognitive decline]. These links further raise the possibility that preventive and treatment strategies targeted at one condition may be useful for another.”
In other words, if you want to keep both your eyes and your memories of what you’ve seen with them throughout your life, you’d do well to cut out the cupcakes and eat plenty of veggies, krill oil, and nuts.
P.S. Studies have also found that consuming six mg per day of lutein can also lower risk of macular degeneration by a whopping 43%. You can get plenty of the carotenoid antioxidant lutein by eating lots of green leafy vegetables such as kale and chard, particularly raw — and of course, fresh veggies are key in the Mediterranean diet. Various fruits also contain lutein as well as zeaxanthin, another helpful carotenoid. Lutein/zeaxanthin supplements have been found helpful in increasing macular pigment as well as in preventing cataracts (in combination with vitamin C), which is one reason you’ll find these components in the Ultimate Antioxidant.