The connection between vitamins and vision is getting clearer.
A study published in January 2019 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition supports the benefits of eating bell peppers, carrots, citrus fruits, tomatoes and dark green vegetables such as broccoli, kale and spinach to help delay the onset of age-related cataracts. Each year, healthcare professionals treat more than 200,000 cases of cataracts — clouding of the lens in the eye — in the U.S. each year, primarily among people over 40 years old.
However, the Australian and Chinese researchers behind the study found that although boosting the intake of vitamins and carotenoids (pigments found in plants like carrots) could lower the risk of age-related cataracts, consumption of antioxidants in the U.S. and many European countries sits below recommended levels for prevention of age-related eye diseases. As such, some experts recommend supplementing our diets with antioxidant-packed vitamins capable of fighting age-related eye problems.
- Vitamin C (250 to 500 milligrams, or mg).
- Vitamin E (400 international units, or IU).
- Zinc (25 to 40 mg).
- Copper (2 mg).
- Vitamin B complex with 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid.
- Omega-3 fatty acids (2,000 mg). Researchers also suggest eating fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, including halibut, salmon and tuna.
Experts emphasize, though, that vitamins and supplements can’t cure age-related eye diseases and can’t restore lost vision.
Still, evidence is mounting that bumping up our intake of certain vitamins and minerals could slash the number of people whose vision deteriorates as they age.
For instance, research published in 2001 in the Archives of Ophthalmology concluded that high levels of antioxidants and zinc decrease the risk of advanced age-related macular degeneration — the leading cause of vision loss among people age 50 and older.
In the Age-Related Eye Disease Study, or AREDS, scientists found people at high risk of developing advanced age-related macular degeneration lowered their risk by about 25 percent when they consumed a high-dose combination of vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene and zinc. The study also showed a reduced risk of vision loss for people with advanced age-related macular degeneration in only one eye, according to the National Eye Institute.
A follow-up study (known as AREDS2) launched in 2006 tested whether the vitamin and supplement mix used in the 2001 trial could be improved by adding two antioxidants, lutein and zeaxanthin; adding omega-3 fatty acids; removing beta-carotene; and lowering the zinc dosage. The second study backed up many of the findings of the first study.
In the AREDS2 study, adding lutein and zeaxanthin to the original formulation (containing beta-carotene) didn’t affect the risk of advanced age-related macular degeneration, the National Eye Institute says. However, those who took the AREDS formula containing lutein and zeaxanthin but no beta-carotene saw a slight drop in the risk of advanced age-related macular degeneration (compared with those who took the original combination with beta-carotene).
Also, people with extremely low levels of lutein and zeaxanthin in their diet experienced a lower risk of age-related macular degeneration when those supplements were added to the AREDS formulation, according to the National Eye Institute. Finally, former smokers who took AREDS with beta-carotene had a higher incidence of lung cancer. Researchers found no significant change in the effectiveness of the formulation when they removed beta-carotene or decreased zinc.
Based on the two studies, researchers settled on this recommended formulation of vitamins and supplements:
- 500 mg of vitamin C.
- 400 international units of vitamin E.
- 80 mg zinc as zinc oxide.
- 2 mg copper as cupric oxide.
- 10 mg lutein (a common carotenoid).
- 2 mg zeaxanthin (a common carotenoid).
“For patients with macular degeneration, eye vitamins are extraordinarily helpful, because we know that it will slow the progression of a disease that can be blinding,” says Dr. Michelle Andreoli, a clinical spokeswoman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Eyecare professionals note that the AREDS formulation isn’t a substitute for a daily multivitamin and that a daily multivitamin alone doesn’t offer the same benefits as the AREDS formulation.
In terms of preventing eye damage related to both cataracts and age-related macular degeneration, the American Optometric Association underscores the importance of vitamin E. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends getting 22 IU of vitamin E each day.
“The human body does not create the vitamin E it needs. This is why daily intake of vitamin E through your diet or nutritional supplements is important for good eye health,” the association says.
All About Vision says taking vitamin E or any other vitamins and supplements geared toward eye health is generally “very safe.” However, experts recommend consulting a healthcare professional before adding them to your regimen, as vitamins and other supplements might not be right for some people.
Eyecare professionals emphasize that in addition to considering vitamins and supplements, people should take these steps to protect their vision:
- Stick to a diet rich in lutein and zeaxanthin (leafy green vegetables), vitamin C (fruits and vegetables), vitamin E (nuts, fortified cereals and sweet potatoes), essential fatty acids (fish, beans, nuts, seeds and plant oils) and zinc (whole grains, nuts, dairy products, red meat and poultry).
- Don’t smoke tobacco products. Smoking is linked to a higher risk of eye problems like cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.
- Wear sunglasses. Exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays contributes to eye diseases such as cataracts and macular degeneration.
“Due to our aging population, the number of blind and visually impaired people in the United States is estimated to double by 2030,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns. “Encouraging people to take care of their vision health as part of their overall health and wellness could significantly reduce that number and improve quality of life for millions of Americans.”
†These statements have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.