Age…with eyes wide open

AS if we need further encouragement to enjoy a glass of red wine, researchers say resveratrol, a natural compound found in red wine, grapes, blueberries, peanuts and other plants, could protect blood vessels in the eye from being damaged by age.

The study, led by retina specialist Dr Rajendra Apte at the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, shows that the natural compound stops out-of-control blood vessel growth (angiogenesis) in the eye.

Published in the July 2010 issue of the American Journal of Pathology, the discovery means resveratrol could safeguard vision in three major eye diseases that can lead to blindness. These include age-related macular degeneration, which is one of the leading causes of blindness in people over the age of 50; diabetic retinopathy, which results in vision loss in about 20% of diabetic patients; and retinopathy of prematurity, which occurs when premature babies experience an obstruction of blood flow into the retina.

“A great deal of (prior) research has identified resveratrol as an anti-aging compound and, given our interest in age-related eye disease, we wanted to find out whether there was a link,” says Apte. “There were reports on resveratrol’s effects on blood vessels in other parts of the body, but there was no evidence that it had any effects within the eye.”

The research team tested resveratrol on mice with abnormal blood vessels in the retina. Their findings showed that when the rodents were given resveratrol, not only was further growth of abnormal blood vessels prevented but that abnormal blood vessels that already existed also began to disappear.

“We have identified a novel pathway that could become a new target for therapies. And we believe the pathway may be involved both in age-related eye disease and in other diseases where angiogenesis plays a destructive role,” explains Apte. “This could potentially be a preventive therapy in high-risk patients. And because it worked on existing, abnormal blood vessels in the animals, it may be a therapy that can be started after angiogenesis is already causing damage.”

So, drinking red wine might prevent eyesight deteriorating with age. But, say eye specialists, there are a number of other ways you can preserve the health and efficacy of your eyes too.

The most prevalent vision problem associated with age is presbyopia, which is a Greek word for “ageing eye” or “old eye”. It’s that “arms-too-short-syndrome” that makes it increasingly difficult to focus on things at close range, which occurs gradually from about the age of 40 as flexibility is lost in the lens of the eye where focusing takes place.

Although most eye specialists believe that presbyopia is as inevitable as the wrinkles on the brow, there are those who argue that, just as other bits and bobs of our bodies benefit from exercise and stretching as we (often frenetically) fend off ageing, eyes too profit from exercise, relaxation and re-training.

One of the primary proponents of eye exercises to remedy presbyopia is New York-based vision therapy optometrist Dr Ray Gottlieb, whose Read Without Glasses Method combines optometric vision therapy and natural vision exercises, which, he says, “have helped patients improve their near vision, avoid reading glasses, get free of them or need weaker ones”.

Sceptics though, believe Gottlieb’s claims are improbable because, they reason, it is the lens that loses elasticity with age and not the muscles and, as such, exercise cannot solve the problem.

“What worries me about the theory is that exercising your eyes in the hope of reversing or slowing presbyopia can result in eye strain and headaches,” says Hout Bay-based optometrist, Tanya Seeber.

But, although she’s unconvinced about exercise to slow or reverse presbyopia, Seeber is an enthusiastic advocate of other methods of that can help conserve vision as we get older.

“You can minimise the impact of age-related vision loss, boost eye health in general and reduce disease risk by carefully monitoring vision changes, identifying problems, and adjusting your habits and dietary choices,” she says.

Predictably, the usual culprits are wheeled out as detrimental to eye health: smoking, drinking and eating too much, and stress. Medical evidence strongly suggests smoking is high on the list of risk factors for degeneration of the macular, which is the part of the retina responsible for the sharp, central vision needed to read or drive. Other risk factors for macular degeneration include high blood pressure and obesity.

“In other words, stop smoking, lose weight if you are unhealthily heavy and take care of hypertension,” says Seeber.

But perhaps the most crucial step in protecting your eyes is to get them checked by an expert and then keep a regular schedule of check ups thereafter. Seeber believes it is wise to start visiting an optometrist or ophthalmologist regularly from the age of about 35, even if you’ve never experienced problems and/or have no reason to suspect that your eyesight is deteriorating. Regular check-ups are even more crucial if members of your family have a history of eye disease.

“But aside from doing what’s right by your eyes, you should go to an expert in the knowledge that your eyes provide a picture of your general health. A thorough check can highlight other pathologies like thyroid problems, high cholesterol, hypertension and diabetes,” she explains.

Optometrists or ophthalmologists also check for glaucoma, which is the result of too much fluid pressure inside the eye; macular degeneration; cataracts; diabetic retinopathy; and retinal detachment. These diseases are often painless and the onset, gradual. The sooner they’re detected, the quicker and more effective treatment.

Many people, particularly those experiencing the onset of presbyopia, are tempted to self-prescribe spectacles and purchase over-the-counter eyewear, which they believe will improve their vision.

“There are a number of problems with this,” says Seeber. “Firstly, by not consulting an expert, people miss out on the important, comprehensive check up that could highlight a range of pathologies. Secondly, they risk putting additional strain on their eyes and getting headaches by not getting the prescription right. Remember, your left and right eyes are seldom equally strong or weak. Even if you don’t buy your spectacles from a specialist, it’s worth getting your eyes and eye health thoroughly checked out by one. Ask for a prescription and get the right glasses elsewhere if you prefer. Your owe it to your quality of life.”

And don’t forget to have a glass of red wine.

Keeping an eye on your vision as you get older

• Older eyes tend to get dry, particularly among women. Avoid too much caffeine and alcohol. Take flaxseed, salmon oil, omega oils and grape seed oil to help reduce dryness.
• Multivitamins, minerals, antioxidants and specially formulated supplements for vision also protect against glaucoma, macular degeneration and cataracts.
• Like every other part of your body, your eyes rely on healthy eating habits, enough sleep and relaxation for their general well being.
• Protect your eyes – particularly if you’ve had cataract surgery, wear contact lenses and/or spend a great deal of time outdoor– with quality UV protective eyewear when you are outdoors.
• Do not delay consulting an expert if your eyes suddenly turn red or if you have sudden loss of vision.
• Be wary of purchasing over-the-counter eye drops if you have not had your eyes professionally examined.
• Be alert for other symptoms of vision problems such as blurred vision, spots and double vision. See your optometrist or ophthalmologist promptly if you notice any of these symptoms.
• Take periodic rest breaks from intense concentration, particularly if you are reading or using a computer, and blink regularly.

For more information

• Ophthalmological Society of South Africa http://www.ossa.co.za
• South African Optometric Association http://www.saoa.co.za

This article was first published in Business Day’s Health News supplement in 2011.

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About Administrator

Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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