New study calls attention to importance of carotenoids

October 21, 2015
Research shows lutein and zeaxanthin may improve risk of most advanced form of age-related macular degeneration.

Doctors of optometry know that eating a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables can be good for eye health, and now new research may help with spreading the word among your patients, and the general public.

A study in the popular press is calling attention to the role of carotenoids—the pigments that give fruits and vegetables their bright colors—in lowering a person's risk of advanced age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

While patients may ask their doctors of optometry about the study, it doesn't offer any new findings to carotenoid research, according to Steven Newman, O.D., who practices in Miami, Florida, and is a certified nutrition specialist, co-author of patient education on nutrition on the AOA website, and an advisory board member of the Ocular Nutrition Society.

The study, which was published in JAMA Ophthalmology, found a 40% risk reduction in advanced AMD among people who ate the highest levels of the carotenoids known as lutein and zeaxanthin, which are found in green, leafy vegetables such as kale, collard greens and spinach, and in eggs. However, researchers didn't find any link between these carotenoids and the intermediate form of AMD.

Dr. Newman says that's like saying people who are the most obese and eat the poorest diet will lose more weight and have more health improvements when they reform their diet than will healthy, fit people already eating well.

People with the lowest levels of carotenoids will indeed have the most improvement to gain, Dr. Newman says, but that group likely has the poorest diet anyway and is at risk for a variety of health issues. "I would not change one thing about my treatment plan based on this study," Dr. Newman says. "But if this study gets more people talking about nutrition and our eye health, that's a good thing."

The researchers examined data from 63,443 women and 38,603 men age 50 and older. However, the study was observational, reviewing self-reported information from surveys. Relying on patients' memories, not clinical data, limits the findings, Dr. Newman says.

Studies like this may open the door to talking with your patients about nutrition and eye health. Dr. Newman asks all of his patients how colorful their diet is and encourages them to eat a "rainbow" every day for healthy eyes and overall good health.

For more information on nutrition and optometry, members can access the AOA nutrition supplement " Eye Health & Nutrition: After AREDS2," produced with an education grant from Kemin.

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