Age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, is an irreversible condition that affects a person’s central vision, taking away their ability to drive, among other common daily activities.
Treatment for late, neovascular AMD is invasive and expensive, and there is no treatment for geographic atrophy, the other form of late AMD that also causes vision loss.
It is in scientists’ best interest to catch this condition early and prevent the development of late AMD. And that’s why the finding that diet plays a role in AMD is so intriguing.
In a recent study from the University at Buffalo, researchers found that people who ate a diet high in red and processed meat, fried food, refined grains, and high-fat dairy were three times more likely to develop late-stage AMD that damages the retina and affects central vision.
The study is published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology. The lead author is Shruti Dighe at UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions.
In the study, the team found that a Western dietary pattern, one defined as high in consumption of red and processed meat, fried food, refined grains, and high-fat dairy, may be a risk factor for developing late AMD.
However, a Western diet was not linked to the development of early AMD in the study.
The team studied the occurrence of early and late AMD over approximately 18 years of follow-up among participants of the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Study.
They used data on 66 different foods that participants self-reported consuming between 1987 and 1995 and identified two diet patterns in this cohort — Western and what researchers commonly refer to as “prudent” (healthy) — that best explained the greatest variation between diets.
They found that people who had no AMD or early AMD at the start of our study and reported frequently consuming unhealthy foods were more likely to develop vison-threatening, late-stage disease approximately 18 years later.
This U.S.-based study is one of the first examining diet patterns and development of AMD over time. The other studies were conducted in European cohorts.
Early AMD is asymptomatic, meaning that people often don’t know that they have it.
To catch it, a physician would have to review a photo of the person’s retina, looking for pigmentary changes and development of drusen, or yellow deposits made up of lipids.
With early AMD, there could be either atrophy or a buildup of new blood vessels in the part of the eye known as the macula.
But not everyone who has early AMD progresses to the more debilitating late stage.
To date, most research has been conducted on specific nutrients — such as high-dose antioxidants — that seems to have a protective effect.
But, people consume a variety of foods and nutrients, not just one or two, and that’s why looking at diet patterns helps tell more of the story.
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