Macular degeneration is the most common cause of blindness in the U.S. affecting more than 10 million Americans. This isn’t just an American problem it’s happening all over the world at an ever-increasing rate. If you are over the age 55 your chances of developing age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is about 1 in 10. Those aren’t good odds. Fortunately, new research is showing that AMD may be preventable.
Macular degeneration is caused by the deterioration of the central portion of the retina. The retina is the inside back layer of the eye that records the images we see and sends them by way of the optic nerve from the eye to the brain. The retina’s central portion, known as the macula, is responsible for focusing central vision in the eye, and it controls our ability to read, drive a car, recognize faces or colors, and see objects in fine detail. As people age, their chances of developing AMD increase dramatically.
The major reason for blindness in the United States 30 years ago was diabetes and it was rare to find macular degeneration. Today the condition has overtaken diabetes five-fold and is now the leading cause of loss of vision in the United States as well as most other industrialized countries. Two-thirds of those who lose their vision are blind due to macular degeneration.
“I’ve seen an exponential rise from the early 1970s through to the 1990s,” says Dr. Paul Beaumont an ophthalmologist with the Macular Degeneration Foundation. “If we look at Japan 40 years ago the disease was rare, now it’s common.”
“I don’t think there’s any doubt we have an epidemic.” Dr. Beaumont is horrified at the rate macular degeneration has multiplied. He’s seen a tenfold increase in the last 30 years.
Although the disease progresses slowly, macular degeneration can affect eyesight very quickly. “One day I was doing crosswords and the next day I couldn’t.” says Jillian Price. For Jillian, the disease has disabled her life as an active woman. “Two months is very fast to lose so much sight; I’ve lost a lot of my independence,” Ms. Price said. “The distance, everything is distorted, getting on the buses, shopping is very hard, I can’t read labels any more.”
For years researchers have sought for the cause and a cure. New research suggests that coconut oil may help prevent this condition. Studies are now showing that if your diet includes soybean, corn, and other processed vegetable oils you may be at high risk for developing age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
Over the past few years several studies have linked polyunsaturated vegetable oils with macular degeneration. The research shows that people who eat polyunsaturated vegetable oils get the disease twice as commonly as those who don’t. Even more convincing was a recent study where those eating a lot of vegetable oil progressed toward macular degeneration at 3.8 times the rate of those eating a little vegetable oil. Saturated fat has the lowest risk and the higher the degree of saturation the better.
The macula sits at the back of the eye. The oils that you eat become part of your eye. Polyunsaturated vegetable oils are very susceptible to lipid peroxidation. Peroxidation is a chemical process that causes fats to become rancid. These rancid oils end up interfering with normal cell function leading to macular degeneration.
When oils become rancid they create destructive free radicals. Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that literally rip other molecules apart causing irreversible damage to cells. Our only means of self-defense against free radicals are antioxidants. Antioxidants help prevent lipid peroxidation and the formation of free radicals. Our bodies make antioxidants from the nutrients in our diet. The most common antioxidant nutrients are vitamins C, E, beta-carotene and the mineral zinc. Lutein another antioxidant nutrient has been shown to be effective in slowing the progression of AMD. For this reason, a vitamin regimen high in antioxidant nutrients and especially lutein, has been recommended as a possible means to treat macular degeneration.
Saturated fats are very resistant to peroxidation. A high concentration of saturated fat in eye tissue can protect against lipid peroxidation associated with AMD. Coconut oil is higher in saturated fat than any other dietary fat. For this reason, it is very stable and highly resistant to peroxidation. It is so stable that it acts as a protective antioxidant and helps protect against the formation of free radicals.
The oils you need to watch out for are the types people normally use every day—soybean, safflower, corn and other polyunsaturated oils, including margarine and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Even canola oil, a monounsaturated fat, isn’t safe. Olive oil is better because it has a higher percentage of saturated fat.
It’s not just the oils you use in cooking or salads. Packaged convenience foods and junk foods are loaded with hidden polyunsaturated oils. Look at the ingredients in any sauce, dip, bread, cracker, cake mix, or frozen dinner. Vegetable oil is hidden in all of them. Most of us have been consuming these processed foods from the time we could walk.
“I think we could halve the number of people going blind with macular degeneration if we could change their diet, cut out the vegetable oil,” Dr. Beaumont says.
Gwen Oliver was diagnosed with macular degeneration two years ago. She was astonished when Dr Beaumont told her to steer clear of vegetable oils. “I was surprised about diet and all the products that we’ve been eating in the past,” Oliver said. “We’ve always had it advertised that vegetable oil was far better for us.”
Dr. Beaumont says he doesn’t envision vegetable oil being removed from all foods, but says there should be a consumer health warning. “I think we have to have a warning on the packages similar to a warning of a cigarette package: vegetable oil can lead to macular degeneration.”
With the latest research pointing to vegetable oils as the main culprit, it may be possible to fend off this disease by simply changing our diets. The first step you should take to defend yourself from age-related macular degeneration is to eliminate most polyunsaturated oils from your diet, including foods made with these oils. Read ingredient labels. The second step is to use coconut oil and other healthy saturated fats for most of your food preparation. The third step is to make sure you get plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidant nutrients into your diet. The general recommendation is at least five servings per day. Some doctors are recommending 8 to 9 servings a day. I do too.
Dr. Beaumont has lobbied the federal government to help fund awareness of this huge problem. “I think they should move fairly urgently,” he said. “I don’t think we can afford to delay in informing the public about something which can be affecting their vision.” To date, however, nothing has happened. You, however, don’t need to wait for the government to step in and do something. That may take a long time. You can do something right now by carefully selecting the foods you eat.■
Seddon, J.M., et al. 2003. Progression of age-related macular degeneration: association with dietary fat, transunsaturated fat, nuts, and fish intake. Arch Ophthalmol 121(12):1728-1737.
Ouchi, M., et al. 2002. A novel relation of fatty acid with age-related macular degeneration. Ophthalmologica 216(5):363-367.
Seddon, J.M., et al. 2001. Dietary fat and risk for advanced age-related macular degeneration. Arch Ophthalmol 119(8):1191-1199.
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