A close-up of a blue female human eye

Macro image of human eye

By the age of 65, one in three Americans has some form of vision-impairing eye condition.

There are four major age-related eye diseases (AREDs) that affect older adults: glaucoma, cataracts, macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy.

• Glaucoma is an eye condition that damages the optic nerve, often caused by an abnormally high pressure in the eye.

• Cataracts is a condition caused by a clouding or clumping of the protein located in the lens of the eye, complicating the flow of light and the ability to see clearly.

• Macular degeneration is a condition that affects the macula, an area at the center of the retina that is responsible for focused, central vision.

• Diabetic retinopathy is a condition caused by damage to the blood vessels of the light-sensitive retina, located at the back of the eye.

The Role of Oxidation and Inflammation

Oxidation and inflammation are the main causes of these eye diseases. The lens of the eye is most susceptible to oxidative damage because its protective cells don’t renew themselves. Fatty acids found in the tissues of the eye can become oxidized, which can cause free radicals to form. These free radicals cause damage to the cells of the eye resulting in a loss of function and structural integrity.

A recent survey found that among the adult population, vision was ranked as the most important of the five senses. Over half of those surveyed were unaware of the key nutrients that play a role in eye health. Growing evidence shows that antioxidants, nutrients that protect against the oxidative damage of free radicals, and foods with anti-inflammatory properties may provide protection and decrease the risk of developing an eye disease. The Age-Related Eye Disease Study found that certain nutrients may reduce the risk of age-related decline in eye health by 25%. Further studies found eating a healthy, balanced diet rich in vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, omega-3 fatty acids and other antioxidants like catechins are all vital for eye health. The Mediterranean diet eating pattern has been found to reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration.

Foods for Eye Health

What foods should we be eating to consume these nutrients and lower our risk for developing an eye disease?

Berries are a great food for your eyes because they contain plenty of vitamin C and other antioxidants that may help lower your risk of cataracts.

Deep orange vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots and pumpkin are a great source of beta carotene, a type of vitamin A, which may help reduce the risk of eye diseases and protect the eye from sunlight damage.

Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, herring, sardines and mackerel are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are known for their anti-inflammatory properties and have also been linked to improved eye health.

Leafy greens like spinach and kale are a rich source of lutein and zeaxanthin which may help protect eye tissues from sunlight damage and reduce the risk of eye changes related to aging. Include a little drizzle of healthy fat such as olive oil or a few slices of avocado to aid in the absorption of lutein and zeaxanthin.

A cup of green tea may be relaxing and delicious, but it is also packed full of antioxidants in the form of catechins. These catechins help prevent cell damage and reduce the formation of free radicals.

If some of the above foods are not your favorites, try other vitamin C-rich foods like bell peppers, oranges or cantaloupe. Swap sweet potatoes and carrots for apricots and dark green leafy vegetables like collard greens or kale for your vitamin A and beta carotene fix. Walnuts, flax and chia seeds are other excellent sources of omega-3-fatty acids. And do not forget about the catechins found in dark chocolate.

Karyn Baroni is a Penn State dietetic intern serving Penn State Extension in Lancaster County.