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Women Who Eat Healthy Diets, Exercise And Don't Smoke Have Better Vision

December 16, 2010

Adapted from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health

The largest study of its kind confirms advice your mother would like: Women who exercised regularly, didn't smoke and ate a healthy diet were much less likely to suffer macular degeneration as they aged.

The study of 1,313 women from Oregon, Iowa and Wisconsin—led by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health—was the first to look at multiple lifestyle factors that influence age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

The condition is the leading cause of vision impairment in older people in the United States and results in $570 million every year in direct medical expenses in this country.

Women who ate healthy diets, exercised and did not smoke had a three times lower chance of having early age-related macular degeneration, signs of a degenerating retina that can eventually lead to advanced AMD. About six percent of the healthy-lifestyle group developed early age-related macular degeneration compared with 18 percent of those who had unhealthy lifestyles.

When early age-related macular degeneration progresses to advanced stages, as happens with age, central vision deteriorates, so that people can no longer drive, see people's faces or read the fine detail needed to read books, newspapers or pill bottles.

"This is wonderful news because AMD does run in families and people worry about passing the condition on to their children," says lead investigator Dr. Julie Mares, professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

"Because lifestyle changes improve our odds of having healthy eyesight as we age, we can model lifestyles for our children and grandchildren that could lower their risk of eventually getting this condition."

Healthy Overall Diet Outweighs Single Nutrients

The study looked at diet, physical fitness and smoking scores for some of the women enrolled in the Women's Health Initiative Observational Study. The study began tracking the health of women from 47 sites nationwide in the mid-1990s.

A subgroup of 1,313 women from three of the sites also had photographs taken of the macula at the backs of their eyes. Dr. Barbra Blodi, also a faculty member of the UW department of ophthalmology and visual sciences, led the assessment of whether the women were developing early age-related macular degeneration.

The study found that women who had healthy diet scores in the highest 20 percent had a 50 percent lower prevalence of early stages of macular degeneration than women with the lowest 20 percent for healthy diet scores. (High scores were given to women who consumed leafy green and orange vegetables, fruits, dairy, grains, legumes. Low scores were given to diets in which more than 20 percent of calories came from fats, alcohol and added sugar.)

The association of healthy eyes with a healthy overall diet was stronger than what researchers have observed for any single nutrient, Mares notes.

"We need to be reminded that what we can do for ourselves with diet and exercise is so much more powerful than taking a single nutrient or dietary supplement," Mares says.

Physical Activity Decreases Likelihood of Early Macular Degeneration

She says another first was that researchers found that higher physical activity was associated with lower likelihood of having early macular degeneration. The study also confirmed other studies that showed smoking was associated with higher levels of eye disease.

But this study differed from earlier surveys because it did not show obesity to be related to AMD. Although obese women were more likely to have more macular degeneration, this trend was almost completely explained by poor diets and low levels of physical activity.

The study is being published online in the Archives of Ophthalmology, a journal of the American Medical Association.

View all news updates for macular degeneration

Disclaimer: The information provided in this section is a public service of the BrightFocus Foundation, and should not in any way substitute for the advice of a qualified healthcare professional, and is not intended to constitute medical advice. Although we take efforts to keep the medical information on our website updated, we cannot guarantee that the information on our website reflects the most up-to-date research. Please consult your physician for personalized medical advice; all medications and supplements should only be taken under medical supervision. BrightFocus Foundation does not endorse any medical product or therapy.

Some of the content in this section is adapted from other sources, which are clearly identified within each individual item of information.

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