En español | Most of us know that eating junk food, lots of red and processed meats, and fat-packed dairy is bad for your heart, contributing to high cholesterol and other health issues. Now there's evidence that it can raise your risk of developing age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a condition that affects about 11 million people in the U.S. and is the leading cause of vision loss among Americans over 50.
Researchers at the University at Buffalo (UB) analyzed data from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study (ARIC), in which some 4,000 participants ages 45 to 64 described their diets between 1987 and 1995. They were divided into two groups: “Western” (unhealthy) and “Prudent” (healthy). They found that people who regularly ate unhealthy foods were three times more likely to develop late-stage AMD over the next 18 years. The findings were published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology last month.
Past studies have found that eating junk food is associated with AMD. What's new, says study senior author Amy Millen, associate professor and associate chair of epidemiology and environmental health at UB, is that while “most of the [previous] work has looked at diet patterns and development of new disease, this is the first study to date in the U.S. that has looked at the development of late AMD over time, looking at the whole diet."
In other words, she adds, “This provides more solid scientific evidence that it's not just a coincidence that people who have AMD have worse diets. You can be more confident that, Yes, if I have early stages of this disease and I eat a certain way, I might actually be able to prevent losing my sight."
Besides avoiding unhealthy foods, eye-health experts often suggest eating those known to be beneficial for your vision, including dark, leafy greens (for their antioxidants, lutein and zeaxanthin), carrots (carotene is converted into vision-boosting vitamin A) and blueberries (also rich in antioxidants).
Because it's easy to get discouraged when trying to dramatically change your diet, Millen suggests taking small steps. “Take a deep breath and just say, ‘OK, I'll eat less red meat, eat less fatty foods.’ Try to do that,” she says. “Does that mean you can't ever eat them? No. Just try to reduce your intake.”
And if you need even more motivation, remind yourself that a healthier diet is associated with a lower risk of a whole host of diseases, as is not smoking (smoking is the largest modifiable risk factor for AMD). Other risk factors for AMD include age and family history.
AMD causes damage to the part of the eye near the center of the retina called the macula, which helps you see things clearly. It may come with symptoms such as blurry vision and, later, may cause vision loss. But the only way to detect early macular degeneration is through a dilated eye exam, so experts recommend regular checkups for people over 40.
Bottom line, says Millen: “Don't forget your eyes.”
Editor's note: This article was originally published on January 3, 2020. It has been updated with the AARP Top Tips video.